You cannot read the news without hearing a story about a lithium-ion battery fire incident that occurred in a high-rise building, electronic vehicle (EV), laptop on an airplane, vape in someone's pocket, a fulfillment warehouse and, of course, in a waste and recycling facility. Instead of reporting on January fires, I will wait until March to provide January and February’s data. This month, I have been hard at work on my annual report, which is scheduled to release in March and will include a breakdown of last year’s record number of fires and how to best solve the problem.
2022 In A Nutshell
Fire is not the problem until it becomes the problem. Early on in my industry tenure, I kept hearing the same thing, “Fire grows in size and scope every X seconds/minutes.” Put in whatever compounding factor you want, but the reality is the earlier you catch a fire, the better chance you have at mitigating the risk to employees, fire professionals, operations and physical infrastructure.
So, what does that really mean?
Prevention: It’s the operator’s job to follow best practices to minimize a fire.
Internal Response: Outside of a fire brigade, the operators must train their employees on best practices such as when it is safe for them to respond and when they must evacuate. In addition, they should invest in solutions like the Fire Rover that detect the fire early with thermal cameras, optical flame and smoke detectors; eliminate the need for a response when the situation warrants; and can engage the fire professionals when warranted.
Professional Response: Arming and equipping our fire professionals with the proper tools, training, techniques and education to successfully fight these types of fire hazards.
Successfully fighting fire problems on a long-term basis requires a combination of all parties working together in lockstep and ready to respond when and if the situation arises. Since no two fire incidences are the same, no two responses are the same, which is why we need a framework that allows for flexibility, quick thinking and proper actions to ensure if an operator has a fire incident that it is not “major” or “catastrophic.”
In 2022, my team at Fire Rover was responsible for more than 1,500 saves at our 350-plus client operations. We have never had a catastrophic incident that began in an area that we protect. Are we perfect? No, but we have successfully fought any major incident that we faced with minimal damage to any of our clients’ facilities. We currently protect eight of the top ten waste and recycling companies in the country along with family-owned operations, municipalities and corporations in the U.S., Canada, the UK, France and Australia. Is it always pretty? No, sometimes it is downright ugly, but our results speak for themselves. The fact is “fire” is ugly. The same two incidents rarely happen twice and never in the same exact way. You have to prepare for the unknown and react within seconds to overcome constantly changing factors and challenges.
Even with our performance, 2022 was the highest year for reported waste and recycling facilities fires that we have experienced since I began consolidating the data in 2016. We even beat last year’s record, which I incorrectly thought was our high-water line.
Why is this number significant? We know the number of batteries we use in personal electronics and personal storage equipment is only growing. I previously made the statement that 2021’s high number of reported incidents was possibly due to 2020’s pullback during the COVID-19 pandemic. The assumption is the waste and recycling tonnage slowed down in 2020 and was pushed into 2021.
What we learned in 2022 was that not only is the lithium-ion battery hazard on the rise in our waste and recycling facilities, but it is starting to garner major public attention outside of our space. Batteries are catching fire on airplanes, in EVs, in high-rise buildings, in scooters and more. This has caused the media to finally focus on the problem, which is both a blessing and a curse. In reality, lithium-ion batteries are a relatively safe technology. According to Victoria Hutchison, a research project manager at the Fire Protection Research Foundation, “One out of every 10 million lithium-ion batteries fails, a condition that almost always leads to a fire.” The issue is that batteries that are treated improperly, incorrectly charged or made with substandard parts/materials are the ones that burn. Just like the public is hard on their electronic scooters by hitting corners, jumping on and off sidewalk curbs and charging 20 at a time, the waste and recycling industry is hard on its trash. Unless someone can figure out a way to be gentler with our waste and recycling, the industry deserves some resources to stop the public’s bad recycling behavior and resources to help deal with the inherent risk thrust upon them.
The best practice of “water, water, water,” which is a fire response approach used for hundreds if not thousands of years, is evolving into early detection and immediate response. Lowering the risk of catastrophic incidents through operational, technological and professional best practices puts the waste and recycling industry in a good position to stem the tide over the next couple of years, even with the onslaught of hazards continuing to barrage our waste and recycling streams across the globe.
As I finalize the 6th edition of the "Waste & Recycling Facility Fires Annual Report," I look forward to breaking down the hazards of the different incidents by material, state, tonnage and more with the ultimate goal of finding new trends or learnings from these incidents. To be first in line to get a copy, subscribe to my newsletter at “Fire Safety Report,” or email me directly at [email protected].
Ryan Fogelman, JD/MBA, is vice president of strategic partnerships for Fire Rover. He is focused on bringing innovative safety solutions to market, and two of his solutions have won the distinguished Edison Innovation Award for Industrial Safety and Consumer Products. He has been compiling and publishing the “Reported Waste & Recycling Facility Fires In The US/CAN” since February 2016 and the “Waste & Recycling Facility Fires Annual Report.” Fogelman regularly speaks on the topic of the scope of fire problems facing the waste and recycling industries, early detection solutions, proper fire planning and early-stage fire risk mitigation. Additionally, Fogelman is on the National Fire Protection Association’s Technical Committee for Hazard Materials. (Connect with Ryan on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanjayfogelman or email at [email protected])