New York City has seen nearly 200 fires this year and six deaths caused by overheated lithium-ion batteries used in e-bikes and scooters, city fire department officials told the City Council in a hearing Monday. 

The hearing covered proposed legislation to improve safety rules and education for the batteries, which fire department officials said can catch fire and explode when not used properly. Council members said they sought to strike a balance between preventing lithium-ion battery fires and keeping e-bikes affordable for the delivery workers who rely on them, who are known as “deliveristas.”

“I am very cognizant of the need to have safety, and I'm very cognizant that the delivery workers need to work,” said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer. “There’s a conundrum here.”

So far, the city has seen 191 fires caused by the batteries — 142 structural fires and 49 non-structural fires — according to Chief Thomas Currao, the FDNY’s acting chief of fire prevention. Currao said that number is higher than the total fires and deaths caused by the batteries in the previous three years combined. 

Overused batteries, as well as batteries that have been improperly refurbished or put into use with the wrong charging cable or e-bike, can overheat and explode, causing nearby batteries to combust in an accelerating chain reaction, Currao said. 

Even though many electronic devices, such as cellphones or electric cars, require lithium-ion batteries, fire officials said the extensive wear and tear on e-bike and e-scooter batteries, coupled with low-quality manufacturing, may be causing the growing number of fires.

“This is not a recreational item that people use for a couple hours and put it away,” Julian Bazel, the FDNY’s fire code counsel, said at the hearing. “This is something that's being used 16 hours a day on city roads, with potholes.”

The city’s fire code currently limits the number of large lithium-ion batteries allowed in a single residence to five. But the fire department does not have enforcement powers to proactively search out people who may be charging many batteries in their home or business on behalf of deliveristas or their employers.

The proposed bills discussed at the hearing would prohibit the sale of refurbished batteries and batteries that aren’t certified by a nationally recognized electronics safety group; mandate annual reporting on battery fires; and require the fire department to further educate businesses and e-bike riders about battery safety and risks. Fire department officials said they supported all the bills, though they suggested they would request that the annual reporting requirements be pared down. 

Yet while the federal government is considering regulations on lithium-ion batteries, the Council’s legislative proposal did not include rules for businesses, such as licensing requirements for battery retailers, or a list of approved battery manufacturers for online sellers or importers.

“I feel that the onus should be on the business, on the retailers and the manufacturers and the distributors” to address safety concerns, said Councilwoman Jennifer Gutiérrez. “I don't need to tell you deliveristas are giving up a big chunk of their income to purchase these devices to be able to work.”

Without a network of regulated charging stations, some people receive fees to charge batteries in their homes, or in the back of their bodegas, Hildalyn Colon Hernández, the policy director for Los Deliveristas Unidos, a delivery worker advocacy group, said at the hearing. 

Colon Hernández cautioned against laws that penalized workers for using refurbished bikes, noting that many battery retailers give riders batteries without the manufacturer’s packaging. She added that identifying a refurbished battery over an unbranded one is nearly impossible. 

“This is how complicated this issue is,” she said. “What we need is clear guidelines about the regulation of the whole industry.”

The Council did not set a date for a vote on the proposed legislation.