MENASASI Middle East and North Africa Society of Air Safety Investigators

Cabin Safety Bulletin No.10

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Cabin Safety Bulletin No.10 - Management of lithium battery fires

 

Who does this bulletin apply to?

This bulletin applies to all charter and regular public transport (RPT) operators of Australian registered aircraft.

What is the purpose of this bulletin?

The purpose of this bulletin is to provide guidance to operators on how to manage an in-flight lithium battery fire with an emphasis on the importance of crew members being aware and able to recognise, assess and take immediate action where required. This bulletin should be used as guidance to ensure appropriate policies and procedures are developed or maintained.

Background

The provisions regulated for transport by air are published in the ICAO Technical Instructions and also within the industry accepted IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (IATA DGR). Lithium batteries, contained within personal electronic devices (PEDs), are generally provided for under the provisions for dangerous goods carried by passengers or crew (or more commonly referred to within industry as the IATA DGR Table 2.3.A).

According to IATA, lithium batteries can generally be divided into two groups:

This table contains lithium batteries divided into two groups

Primary (non-rechargeable) lithium metal batteries Secondary (rechargeable) lithium-ion and lithium polymer batteries
Used in smaller devices such as watches, calculators and cameras, or as a back-up power supply Larger and more powerful, used in devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones

Source: IATA Cabin Operations Safety Best Practices Guide

The widespread usage of lithium batteries in consumer electronic devices (laptops, mobile phones, tablets, readers, hand-held games, etc) present the opportunity for passengers to carry a multitude of PEDs on board flights. There are also many devices powered by lithium batteries that are used on board aircraft, such as emergency equipment (portable electronic locator beacons, defibrillators, etc), retail sales computers, electronic flight bags and tablet devices for In-Flight Entertainment (IFE).

Why all the fuss?

Lithium batteries are capable of rapid disassembly, venting of noxious gases, spontaneous ignition and subsequent explosion due to overheating. This can be caused by electrical shorting, rapid discharge, overcharging, a manufacturer’s defect, poor design or mechanical/physical damage (such as crushing or dropping the device). Overheating results in a process called a “thermal runaway” which is a reaction within the battery causing internal temperatures and pressure to rise at a quicker rate than can be dissipated.

Once one cell within a battery goes into thermal runaway it can produce enough heat to cause adjacent cells to sympathetically react. This can produce smoke, fire and fumes that can repeatedly flare up as each battery cell in turn ruptures and releases its contents.

Lithium batteries are the most common type of battery that most often features with regards to in-flight incidents. Often it is overheating, which eventually triggers ignition in equipment and batteries that, unknown to the user, may be faulty in some way. While the carriage and use of PEDs does not present an overwhelming risk to flight safety, there are potential risks due to the inability to gain access to devices during a thermal runaway/overheating event.

Incidents involving lithium battery powered devices

Following a recent survey conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), CASA estimated the average Australian passenger travels with around 3-4 PEDs on their person each sector, with another 1-2 packed within their checked baggage.

While rare, there have been incidents of malfunctioning/damaged lithium batteries in recent years with the most common cause being smartphones and their batteries being crushed in passengers’ seats.

In Australia, one of the first reportable events of this type occurred in November 2011 when Regional Express (Rex) confirmed a passenger's iPhone started emitting smoke after landing on a flight from Lismore to Sydney. A cabin crew member was able to quickly isolate and contain the event, with no passengers on board injured. It was later identified that the cause of the event was a loose screw (resulting from an unapproved screen repair) caught between the case and battery which had worn through the battery’s skin over time, causing a short circuit of the internal wiring of the iPhone fire.

Internationally, there have been other incidents where PEDs have undergone thermal runaway and/or burst into flames due to overheating or crushing. Some examples include:

  • In 2014 an iPhone 5 caught fire in a passenger’s bag on a flight bound for Prague, causing the entire plane to be evacuated back to the main terminal.
  • In 2016, on a flight to Los Angeles, a passenger advised a cabin crewmember of a missing PED. Whilst searching, another passenger observed the PED within the seat mechanism. The seat was then inadvertently moved, resulting in the PED being crushed. The crushed PED immediately began hissing and emitting smoke. Moments later, the PED ignited.
  • In 2017 a woman was left with burns to both her hands, hair and face during a flight from Beijing to Melbourne from an exploding battery in a set of headphones.

Are there any recommended procedures when dealing with a lithium battery fire?

Appropriate crew training is an important mitigating factor in preventing incidents involving lithium batteries. An operator should have documented procedures in their operations manuals available to flight, cabin and ground personnel.

Documents may require revision to indicate procedures when dealing with PED issues including:

  • Operations manuals
  • Training material
  • Internal checklists
  • Passenger safety information cards.

Emergency firefighting procedures and training drills that are consistent with recommendations for lithium battery firefighting techniques should also be included in both initial and recurrent training. This should include scenarios involving the crushing of such devices as well as specific locations (for example overhead lockers).

Operator procedures should take into consideration the required actions of single and multicrew teams when dealing with a lithium battery event and the prioritisation of associated duties. Crew should also be aware of the types of equipment and resources readily available on board to assist in the management of a lithium battery event.

The latest edition of the ICAO publication Emergency Response Guidance for Aircraft Incidents Involving Dangerous Goods (Doc 9481) provides guidance on dealing with incidents in the aircraft cabin involving lithium battery powered devices, for example:

3.3.1 Battery / portable electronic device (PED) fire / smoke

Checklist for battery / portable electronic device (PED) fire / smoke

Step Cabin Crew Actions
1.

Identify the item

Note. It may not be possible to identify the item (source of fire) immediately. In this case, apply Step 2 first, and then attempt to identify it.

Caution:

In order to avoid injury from a flash fire, it is not recommended to open the affected baggage when there is any indication of smoke or flames.

2.

Apply fire-fighting procedure

  1. Obtain and use the appropriate fire extinguisher.
  2. Retrieve and use protective equipment, as applicable to the situation.
  3. Move passengers away from the area, if possible.
  4. Notify pilot-in-command / other cabin crew members.

Note. Actions should occur simultaneously in a multi-crew operation.

3.

Remove power

  1. Disconnect the device from the power supply, if safe to do so.
  2. Turn off in-seat power, if applicable.
  3. Verify that power to the remaining electrical outlets remains off, if applicable.

Caution:

Do not attempt to remove the battery from the device.

4.

Douse the device with water (or other non-flammable liquid)

Note. Liquid may turn to steam when applied to the hot battery.

5.

Leave the device in its place and monitor for any reignition

If smoke or flames reappear, repeat Steps 2 and 4.

Caution:

  • Do not attempt to pick up or move the device.
  • Do not cover or enclose the device.
  • Do not use ice or dry ice to cool the device.
6.

When the device has cooled

(e.g. approximately 10 to 15 minutes)

  1. Obtain a suitable empty container.
  2. Fill the container with enough water (or other non-flammable liquid) to submerge the device.
  3. Using protective equipment, place the device in the container and completely submerge in water (or other non-flammable liquid).
  4. Stow and secure (if possible) the container to prevent spillage.
7. Monitor the device and the surrounding area for the remainder of the flight
8.

After landing at the next destination

Apply operator’s post-incident procedures.

What happens if the device is dislodged in the seat mechanism?

Some operators offer electrically adjustable seats in their premium class cabins. Small PEDs such as mobile phones, mini tablets and MP3 readers can become a potential fire hazard if it slips or is inadvertently dropped between the mechanical parts of the seat and is crushed or damaged initiating thermal runaway.

Passenger awareness on how to use and stow their devices while in flight can assist in helping to mitigate these incidents. Both IATA and ICAO’s recommended practices reference cabin crew should always notify the pilot-in-command of the situation and ensure that the electrical or mechanical seat functions to retrieve the PED are not used. Information should also be sought from the passenger concerned, regarding identification of the item, and where they suspect the device may have dropped/slipped. If the device is unable to be retrieved, it may be necessary to move the passenger to another seat and request maintenance and engineering to retrieve the device upon or after landing.

If the situation escalates, and thermal runaway does occur, cabin crew should follow their respective operator procedures including lithium battery firefighting procedures and post-event procedures (on board).

Preventative measures

Operators should make every effort to ensure that passengers are aware of the requirements for the carriage of batteries in their cabin or checked baggage. IATA recommends this can be addressed through:

  • Passenger awareness campaigns
  • Websites
  • Check-in processes
  • Departure gate announcements
  • Safety cards
  • Safety videos/briefings on board.

To ensure a process of continuous improvement and ongoing hazard/risk identification, operators should also encourage the following be reported by crew members:

  • Damage to PEDs that had the potential to cause or has caused in-flight smoke or fire, such as a crushing event.
  • PED or battery failure that has resulted in a smoke or fire event.

The operator’s Safety Management System (SMS) or safety assurance program should continue to monitor occurrences to assist in identifying areas that require improvement.

Further information

View the cabin safety pages.