Report highlights new hazards in fighting fires involving energy storage systems

January 3, 2024

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), collaborating with UL Solutions and the Underwriters Laboratory’s Fire Safety Research Institute, has published a report titled “Considerations for Fire Service Response to Residential Battery Energy Storage System Incidents.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, this report is based on extensive tests and offers comprehensive guidelines for addressing fires involving energy storage systems (ESS) that use lithium-ion battery technology.

Understanding the challenges in ESS fire incidents

The research detailed in the report is grounded in four large-scale tests, including a baseline test and three additional tests conducted using a mock-up of a residential lithium-ion battery ESS set in a two-car garage.

This setup allowed for the simulation of real-life scenarios, providing valuable insights into the specific challenges firefighters may face in such incidents.

The report identifies several key considerations:

Fire growth rate in energy storage systems

One of the primary concerns outlined in the report is the accelerated fire growth rate associated with lithium-ion battery involvement in fires.

This rapid expansion of fire poses significant risks, including:

  • Quick escalation of fire intensity.
  • Explosion hazards due to battery involvement.
  • Increased flammability of smoke caused by unburned battery gas in ventilation-limited fires, raising the risk of backdraft.
  • Thermal runaway risk

Another critical aspect highlighted is the phenomenon of thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries, which can occur even without an active fire.

Indicators of thermal runaway include the emission of white or gray battery gas, forming low-hanging clouds around the structure.

In such cases, firefighters are advised against entering the structure for gas meter measurements and to have hose lines ready for immediate use.

Explosion hazard assessment

The report emphasizes the unpredictability of battery gas explosions, which can start as soon as thermal runaway occurs.

Firefighters face the greatest risk of explosion near driveways, doors, windows, and other ventilation points.

The recommendation is to avoid parking fire apparatus near potential explosion sites, especially in front of garage doors.

Challenges in confirming battery involvement

One of the significant challenges in responding to ESS fires is the difficulty in confirming battery involvement using standard visual, thermal imaging, or portable gas meter indicators.

This uncertainty requires a cautious approach and the need for specialized training and equipment.

Recommendations for personal protective equipment

Ensuring firefighter safety is a primary concern, and the report advises the use of full structural personal protective equipment (PPE), including Level D ensemble and full self-contained breathing apparatus, before size-up operations in ESS fire scenarios.

Ongoing efforts and future directions

The IAFF, UL Solutions, and the Fire Safety Research Institute are committed to continuing their work on this project.

Their focus is on developing further training materials to equip firefighters with the knowledge and tools necessary to safely and effectively respond to fires involving energy storage systems.

FSJA Comment

This report marks a significant advancement in understanding and managing the unique hazards associated with fires involving energy storage systems, particularly those using lithium-ion batteries.

It underscores the evolving nature of firefighting in the face of new technologies and the imperative for continuous learning and adaptation among first responders.

The detailed considerations and guidelines provided in the report are crucial for enhancing the safety and effectiveness of firefighting teams in these challenging scenarios.

As energy storage systems become more prevalent in residential and commercial settings, the insights from this research will be invaluable in shaping fire safety strategies and training programs.

The collaborative efforts of the IAFF, UL Solutions, and the Fire Safety Research Institute exemplify the importance of multi-organizational partnerships in addressing emerging safety challenges.

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