© Christopher Freeman |

The already daunting prospect of fighting battery fires on ships, in warehouses and on aircraft is further complicated by chemicals which ‘off-gas’ during such fires, according to TT Club.

During a battery fire, gases are released which can pose both an explosion risk and the threat of death if inhaled. But these appear as black smoke, meaning that first responders might be unaware they are breathing toxic chemicals.

These include carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen cyanide – infamously, the main component of Zyklon B – as well as hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride.

But additionally, the chemicals off-gassed by burning lithium-ion batteries hug the ground rather than rising, making traditional advice moot, said TT Club risk assessment manager Neil Dalus.

He explained: “Traditionally, where fires and smoke are concerned, one would stay low to avoid inhalation – doing so where lithium battery fires are concerned is likely to prove problematic. Given the hazardous nature of this vapour, the best course of action is to evacuate the area and leave the incident response to the emergency services, ensuring that the known risks are appropriately communicated.”

In conversation with The Loadstar, Mr Dalus and TT Club’s Mike Yarwood highlighted various stages of the supply chain, such as warehouses, where proper PPE may not be available, or up to the task of preventing first responders inhaling toxic gas. In such scenarios, ‘have-a-go’ heroes are at particular risk, they said.

“Lithium batteries are not the only cargo with these issues, and so seafarers attending fires on board or professional firefighters will still usually have sufficient breathing apparatus and PPE,” said Mr Yarwood. “But [in a warehouse], you have maybe 5-10kg fire extinguishers… very few would have breathing apparatus. It is about situations where a first responder thinks, I’ll have a go with the fire extinguisher.”

In cases where first responders have been affected by toxic gas inhalation, it may be tricky to assign liability.

“We’re talking weeks, even months, before symptoms manifest in some cases. At that point, evidence correlating that with an incident that happened months ago, it could be very difficult to tie it back to a particular gas.”

Lithium battery fires came to prominence again recently, with July’s fire on the K-Line-operated  Fremantle Highway claiming the life of one seafarer and causing widespread injuries among the remaining 24 crew members. It followed several other fires, including Felicity AceDiamond HighwayGrande America and Grimaldi ro-ro vessel Grande Costa d’Avorio, where electric-car batteries have been named either as a proximate cause or exacerbating factor. This prompted TT Club head of risk management Peregrine Storrs-Fox to highlight “…a bad run of [fires] if not a concerning trend”.

He told The Loadstar: “The car industry seems to focusing on everything but safety – ‘how we get more charge into these things, how can we charge faster’. There is no one saying, ‘how do we engage with first responder, how are we engaging with those who will move and store these vehicles on behalf of manufacturers?’.”

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  • John Clark

    September 08, 2023 at 10:57 am

    Governments around the world are hell bent on conversion to EV’s but they are ignoring the massive risks. Unfortunately this is often the case because Governments come and go.