New York City leans on public for help with e-bike crackdown after deadly fires

Jun 23, 2023, 4:51 PM

Firefighters and investigators go through the aftermath of a fire which authorities say started at ...

Firefighters and investigators go through the aftermath of a fire which authorities say started at an e-bike shop and spread to upper-floor apartments, Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City officials called on the public to help with a crackdown on unsafe e-bike shops after a spate of deadly fires caused by lithium ion batteries, the latest of which killed four people in Manhattan’s Chinatown on Tuesday.

In the days since, fire officials have issued citations to 10 e-bike shops for unsafe handling of the batteries. The inspections followed tips from members of the public, the media and local politicians, officials said.

Daniel Flynn, the chief fire marshal of the FDNY, encouraged New Yorkers to report “hazardous conditions” inside repair shops, such as batteries being charged in close proximity, damaged-looking devices, or shops using extension cords for charging.

“These fires go from zero to 100 in a second,” Flynn said. “If you feel within yourself that there’s a dangerous situation, give us a call.”

New York City has seen over 100 fires and 13 deaths this year linked to e-bikes, more than double the total number of fatalities from last year, officials said. The bikes are popular with delivery workers, but can overheat if defective or improperly charged, leading to fast-moving blazes that are difficult to extinguish. The dangers are especially grave in cities like New York where people live in close quarters.

On Tuesday, four people died of smoke inhalation and two others were hospitalized after a fire in the HQ E-Bike Repair spread to upper floor apartments. City officials said they’d previously fined the shop for its e-bike charging practices, though inspectors reportedly did not check to see if the store was selling reconditioned batteries on a recent visit.

Under new guidelines, fire officials will be directed to respond to complaints about e-bike batteries within 12 hours, rather than the previous policy of three days.

Flynn said the goal was not to criminalize repair shops, but to go after the ones that aren’t properly handling the batteries. “We want to be clear that we support the use of these devices, we just want them to be used safely,” he said.

The city has issued nearly 500 summonses related to e-bikes, which can result in fines between $1,000 and $5,000.

The latest strategy, which will also include educational outreach to repair shops, comes on top of a raft of other proposed reforms that aim to attack the cause of e-bike fires. Later this year, the city will ban the sale of e-bikes and scooters that don’t meet certain safety standards. The fire department has issued public service announcements, while local officials have discussed a “buy-back” program for low-quality batteries.

In March, Mayor Eric Adams said the city would bring new e-bike charging and storage locations to four public housing developments across the city. But on Thursday, following the latest deadly blaze, he acknowledged there were outstanding questions about what it would take to ensure the devices are handled safely.

“All of these good ideas have to be figured out logistically: how do we go about doing it?” he said. “Nothing is off the table in trying to resolve this problem.”

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New York City leans on public for help with e-bike crackdown after deadly fires