Fire Prevention 52: Charged and Explosive

By Kathy Komatz, Structural Fire Training Specialist
Close up of batteries.

Be Aware of Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are incredibly common, and can be found in laptops, cell phones, iPods, electronic toys, and even electric cars. They're so common because, for their size, they're some of the most energetic rechargeable batteries available.

However, under the right circumstances, these batteries can overheat, potentially causing burns, an explosion, or a fire. Because most lithium-ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte with a very high energy density, they are susceptible to thermal runaway, a destructive chain reaction that results from overheating after excessive use. The stored energy is then released in the form of a fire. Fortunately, it's not very common--just two or three batteries per million have a problem.

Follow these simple safety guidelines to reduce the chance of your batteries overheating:

  • Batteries are extremely sensitive to high temperatures. Don't expose your GPS or other portable electronics to the hot sun, like the dashboard of your car.
  • Lithium-ion batteries are delicate. If there is the possibility of battery damage, such as if you’ve dropped your cell phone, it is a good idea to have the battery inspected by a qualified person.
  • Ensure that your computers have air flow around and underneath the unit, so they remain cooler during operation. Do not use your computer on top of blankets or a bed.
  • Batteries increase in temperature during recharging, which could cause them to overheat. Never leave your portable electronics plugged in when you’re not at home.

For our readers who are now worrying about their electric car, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars are less likely to catch fire due to numerous safety precautions, such as cooling and automatic shutdown systems. Refer to your car owner's manual for more information about the battery.

Fire Info for You

Employees
Don't throw your old batteries into the trash! Under the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation Program, battery and cell phone collection boxes are located in stores such as Radio Shack, Target, Sears, Kmart, RiteAid, Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe's Home Improvement, Verizon Wireless, and many others. It's free to drop off small quantities of batteries or cell phones. Find a recycling center near you.

Firefighters
Newer cars pose many risks to firefighters and other emergency responders. Knowing the risks and training for them prevents further injuries at the accident scene. Read Cars Safer for Passengers--But Not First Responders on USAToday.com.

Park Leadership
If your park has an aviation program, circulate the Interagency Aviation Accident Prevention Bulletin #12-02 on lithium-ion batteries.

Take Action

  1. Remove dash-mounted GPS units and other battery-powered devices from sunlit and other hot areas.
  2. Make sure that all computers are well ventilated.
  3. Never leave your portable electronics plugged in when not at home.