Firefighter issues warning over e-bike safety risks

Number of e-bike fires rises by 60% in London as ‘gig economy’ workers increasingly depend on them, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Aftermath of an e-bike blaze (credit LFB)
Aftermath of an e-bike blaze (credit LFB)

London has seen a 60% rise in the number of fires caused by e-bike batteries so far this year, a senior firefighter has warned.

Deputy fire commissioner Dom Ellis said that the issue was a matter of international concern and could potentially become a “societal blindspot”.

He told a meeting of the London Assembly’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee that New York has seen a number of deaths caused by e-bike fires, including four people just last week after a fire broke out in an e-bike repair shop.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has started a campaign called #ChargeSafe, to try to alert people to the potential dangers of the bikes’ lithium-ion batteries, if they are of a poor quality and safety measures are not taken.

Ellis said there was a particular worry about “retrofit kits” – a largely unregulated product which can be bought online to give electric capabilities to a standard bike.

He urged Londoners to instead buy their e-bike from a “reputable dealer”, where they can be sure the battery was manufactured responsibly – though he admitted a new e-bike can cost at least £2,000 if bought from a recognised provider.

According to LFB data, there have been 70 e-bike, 14 e-scooter and 35 other lithium-battery fires in London so far in 2023.

The deputy commissioner explained that while lithium-ion batteries are also found in mobile phones, the risk is much greater given the size of battery used on an e-bike.

“With e-bikes and e-scooters the amount of energy in those battery packs is sufficient to really compromise a good-sized double bedroom in 10-15 seconds and it’s the intimacy of the risk that’s the key concern here,” said Ellis.

“Because people have these charging in their hallways, or a lot of the gig economy people, of course, they’ve got them in their bedsits, in their HMOs.

“So it’s at the end of their bed, and they’re probably charging while they sleep, because they’ve just done a 14-hour shift and they need to get back out there again.”

Dan Parsons, director of Fully Charged, which bills itself as “London’s leading electric bike retailer”, said the problem had a clear socio-economic dimension.

“It’s very difficult to go out to a gig economy rider and say you must spend X number of hundreds or thousands of pounds on an electric bicycle so that you can go about your work,” he said.

“The reason that these guys and girls are choosing electric bikes, home-made kits, is that its inexpensive for them to assemble and to put together, and they can deliver more in less time and generate for themselves – but they are putting themselves in danger by doing that.

“So I do think that the gig economy employers have a responsibility and duty of care to those individuals, to ensure that they aren’t necessarily condoning the usage of those badly-assembled products.”

Baroness Fiona Twycross, London’s deputy mayor for fire and resilience, later told the committee: “There is an urgent need for the government to introduce a regulatory framework.”

E-scooters were banned on train networks in the south-east earlier this year. Transport for London introduced a ban on e-scooters and e-unicycles across its network in December 2021. Folding e-bikes are permitted on the network.

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