Lithium Ion batteries: a non-technical review from an all hazards perspective

Within Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) there is a strong focus on better understanding the potential dangers, hazards, risks and operational actions when Lithium Ion batteries are involved in an incident. It’s an area that is growing in attention but is still not as well understood by those who may be required to respond to emergency events in the first instance and therefore are at greater risk.

Words: Peter Heath MBA MSc CMgr FCMI FCIPD, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service

Vapour clouds produced by a 1.67kWh Lithium Ion module in thermal runaway. The vapour includes Hydrogen (ca.30%), Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Hydrogen Cyanide, Hydrogen Chloride, Hydrogen Fluoride, Methane, Ethane and droplets of organic solvent. Note the buoyant and heavier-than-air components: both are flammable and potentially explosive. Photo: Newcastle University.

Firefighters, ambulance and police staff, as well as many other service providers, should take an interest in Lithium Ion battery technology and the potential dangers, hazards, risk and consequences when they become damaged, involved in fire, misused or inappropriately discarded. TWFRS has been engaging with the scientific community and the UK fire and rescue services, via the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), to raise awareness and understanding of this increasingly used technology and how an all hazards approach to safety is key to dealing with such incidents.

All hazards approach

Through the NFCC, work has been ongoing for some time to broaden out the awareness of the potential dangers, hazards, risks and possible actions when dealing with Lithium Ion batteries. Similarly, an all hazards approach to firefighter safety forms part of the work of National Operational Guidance being produced.

Lithium Ion battery technology has been increasing in use across much of modern living for many years and can be found in use in industry, energy generating plant, private homes, electronic devices, small cell portable batteries and road vehicles, to list a few typical examples. This in itself is not necessarily the issue and, of course, manufacturers and producers go to great lengths to make efficient and safe operating batteries.

The challenge for responders is what happens when Lithium Ion battery technology becomes damaged or is not installed correctly or in some way begins to break down due to disposal, misuse or error. While much has been written around the scientific and technical matters relating to Lithium Ion batteries, there is an increasing attention being given to ensuring that owners and those responding to emergencies involving Lithium Ion battery devices, plant, equipment and vehicles are aware of the potential dangers they may face and what to be alert to.

Battery fire

Some of these challenges and dangers where again highlighted at a fire in a large Lithium Ion battery (300MW and 450MWh) in the state of Victoria, in Australia, in early August 2021, which took three days to extinguish, after being left largely to burn out and creating a significant toxic gas cloud.1

Over the previous two years or so TWFRS has taken a keen interest in situations where electric vehicles involved in collisions were being reported as reigniting or bursting into flames, often long after the accident event. Similarly, occasionally hearing of Lithium Ion batteries located in rooms and spaces where they had become heated and thermal runaway may have led to them catching fire. Added to this is what is sometimes reported as steam coming from damaged Lithium Ion batteries, where in fact it is actually more likely to be highly toxic gases.

Understanding potential dangers

For operational commanders and first responders, this requires keen attention. They need to understand more about the potential dangers, hazards, risks and what safety measures should be considered if attending an incident involving Lithium Ion batteries. Understanding this is critical in promoting both firefighter and community safety as well as minimising the impact on the natural environment.

At this year’s UKRO, Festival of Rescue, being hosted by TWFRS from 17-18 September on the banks of the Tyne, we have planned to run a short lecture programme highlighting some of the dangers, hazards and consequences, focused on Lithium Ion batteries that fail. Dr Paul Christianson, an authority on Lithium Ion battery technology and Senior Advisor to the National Fire Chiefs Council, will present these lectures.

Developing an understanding and appreciate of the dangers, hazards, risks and potential actions to take are critical, as without these, the dangers to responders may be high and developing an all hazards approach requires a situational awareness based on a contextual appreciation of cause, effect and implications based on a solid understanding of the potential dangers.

You don’t have to be a scientist or have a highly technical knowledge of Lithium Ion batteries, but as a first responder you do need to have a great appreciation of where they may be present and how they may react in a range of situations. Understanding this, is critical for all firefighters and other blue light responders as Lithium Ion batteries are in use in every part of society and often it’s not obvious that this is what they are.

Professor Paul Christensen is available to offer help and advice re Lithium Ion batteries and can be contacted at


1. Tesla Big Battery blaze extinguished after three days