Hazmat Team Key in Fla. Battery Plant Fire

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With June’s Safety Stand Down theme being lithium-ion batteries, a good deal of information will be coming out about how to safely attack those fires.

We’ve seen numerous vehicle and other battery fires. And, hazmat teams have been called out when fires or other incidents happen at power storage stations, which use large banks of lithium-ion batteries.

In late April, hazmat teams responded to yet a different lithium-ion battery threat. Fire and hazmat crews in Jacksonville, Fla., responded to the Saft battery plant when one 20,000 pound lithium-ion battery caught fire.

Jacksonville Fire Deputy Division Chief of Operations Mike Lesniak told the Florida Times-Union that there were no explosions, but the site was evacuated.

“These batteries, whether it’s the lithium-iron phosphate or lithium-ion batteries, they’re small cells, they’re packed together real tight,” Lesniak told the paper. “So what happens is once you get thermal runaway with one battery, then it impacts all the other batteries and compromises them. So it is not anything that you can put out with just putting a lot of water on them. … Once one battery gets going, it just heats up the battery next to it and around it.”

Also Read: FDNY Shares Fire, Hazmat Lessons on Lithium-Ion Batteries

The initial attempts to put out the 20,000 pound battery with dry chemicals and special fire extinguishers were unsuccessful. Hazmat units worked to move the other nearby batteries and keep them cooled to not exacerbate the situation while the fire steadily burned the affected battery.

“This fire continues to burn and it’s going to continue to burn for hours. It puts off some pretty dangerous gas,” Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers told the paper, noting hydrogen fluoride.

Also Read: Illegal Lithium Battery Transport Burn Just Before Going to Sea

Firefighters and hazmat crews were decontaminated after leaving the hot zone.

More common will be incidents at energy storage system sites that use lithium-ion batteries.

ESS is essentially any system that can store energy for later use. The United States built its first ESS facility in 1929 and got serious about the technology during the 1970s’ oil crisis. Today, the push for renewable energy and the development of lithium-ion batteries catapulted the drive for more ESSs. Currently there are about 600 facilities in the U.S. We can expect that number to grow. We can expect it to grow beyond the massive sites storing energy from solar or wind farms in the deserts. We can expect to see smaller ESSs in urban areas, probably on rooftops.

Also Read: Four Tips to Prepare for Energy Storage System Incidents

In its special report “Learning from Surprise”, NFPA did an outstanding job of detailing exactly what can go wrong for hazmat and fire responders. In April 2019 in Surprise, Arizona four firefighters were badly hurt when a lithium-ion ESS exploded. That explosion was preceded by what’s known as thermal runaway where the batteries rapidly discharged. That runaway increases heat and can lead to fire if unchecked. It also produces a cocktail of nasty gases.

Here are four steps you can take to better protect your hazmat team.


Learn as much as you can about ESSs and lithium-ion batteries. One of the Surprise hazmat members injured was an expert in this technology and was still caught off guard. Learn and continue learning; this is a fast-evolving technology and field.


Get involved at the planning stage. According to NFPA, one of the key lessons from Surprise was to develop response plans and safety systems during the design and implementation phase of these ESS projects. NFPA reported that the emergency response plan did not convey that a large flammable gas hazard or cell-to-cell and module-to-module cascading thermal runaway was possible. “An up-to-date history of the measurements of gas composition and potentially the percent LEL inside the structure would have been the best information for the firefighters on scene, and undoubtedly would have changed their response and would have prevented the injuries,” Co-author of the UL report Mark McKinnon told NFPA Journal.


Push for code creation where needed and code enforcement where they exist. NFPA points to areas where its existing codes could have helped in Surprise and areas where codes need to adapt to this changing technology. Jim Biggins, the chair of the NFPA 855 technical committee, says, “We’re looking at providing additional guidance in NFPA 855 both for explosion venting and normal venting of the battery enclosures and battery rooms. It’s such a large volume of gas coming out of a single cell during thermal runaway, and I don’t think anybody fully understood that mechanism previously.”


Be wary of cure-all safety technology and one-stop training. This area will require careful research. New safety technology for hazmat and fire responders will need to be fully vetted. And training on best practices is sure to change often. “What happens a lot with new technology is there’s an expectation that the fire department immediately becomes an expert on how to mitigate a hazard that they respond to, and I don’t think that’s a fair expectation,” Kerber told NFPA. “There has to be research upfront, there have to be codes and standards in place, and sometimes the technology gets ahead of that. In this case, there was really no good guidance. There was no good training.”

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