Secondary Navigation

Transcript: Office Of Public Safety Holds Briefing On Public Safety In New York City

February 2, 2024

Assistant Deputy Mayor Louis Molina, Public Safety: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Louis Molina, and I am the assistant deputy mayor for Public Safety. This discussion is part of a series of briefings we have been holding about public safety in New York City to let you hear information directly from the sources, the leaders working behind the scenes to keep our city safe.

Protecting public safety is a team effort, but most important, you are part of that team, too. We can't do our job without your help. So, I thank you for tuning in, and I want you to take something you learn here today and share it with a loved one.

Today our focus is on the Fire Department. I'm joined by the FDNY commissioner, Laura Kavanagh, and members of her team: Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn, Director of Community Affairs Fabricio Caro, and Chief of Fire Prevention Anthony Saccavino.

Over the past two years in particular, there's a new battle we've been up against in keeping New Yorkers safe, and that's fire started by unsafe lithium‑ion batteries, like the ones that power e‑bikes and other electric e‑mobility vehicles.

I can't stress to you enough how dangerous this is. Think about this for a minute. Somebody could be charging up an e‑bike inside of their apartment in the same building where you live, and it has a battery they brought online that is not safety certified or has been refurbished, and all of a sudden it catches fire.

Within mere seconds, their entire apartment can become engulfed in flames. We're going to see a video shortly that shows just how fast these fires can spiral out of control.

So, even if you do not personally have one of these devices, this is something that has the potential to affect every single one of us. That's why we need to keep getting the word out there and keep raising awareness.

So, please help us spread the word on this, especially if you know anyone who has some kind of electronic transportation device. Make sure they know what to look for to make sure they're using a safe battery, how to minimize the chances of starting a fire, and what to do if God forbid a fire does break out.

With that, I'll turn it over to Commissioner Kavanagh to talk a little bit more about these lithium battery fires and what the Fire Department is doing to prevent them; and, give us an update on some other things the FDNY has been focused on lately. Commissioner Kavanagh?

Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh: Thank you so much, and thank you for helping us bring attention to this. As I'm speaking, you'll see a video playing behind me that shows some of these fires, and I think it's really, really important for the Fire Department to continue to enforce how unusual these fires are.

So, when we call it a fire, it's really more of an explosion. Our, you know, fire marshals have actually noted that in most of the cases of arson we do not see as much damage as we see when [a] lithium‑ion battery fails.

And so we want to continue to reinforce to the public how extraordinarily dangerous these can be. If one fails in your home, you have little to no opportunity to get out of your home, and so that's why it's so, so critical not only to keep going on some of the initiatives I'm going to mention here, but just for the public to educate themselves and their neighbors and their family members about either not having one of these in their home, having them in the right location and making sure that it's a safe device.

So, you have heard me talking about this for more than two years, and we will keep talking about it until it's no longer a danger to our firefighters and to members of the public.

It is an incredibly critical and unusual issue for public safety, where an item that caused zero deaths only a few years ago is now the leading cause of fires and fire deaths in New York City. Last year it caused a total of 267 fires, 150 injuries and 18 deaths of New Yorkers.

This Fire Department and the administration have come at this from absolutely every angle. We have seen our fire marshals and our Bureau of Fire Prevention do enforcement in every single bike shop in New York City. We have seen our firefighters and our fire safety education unit do thousands of inspections and educational opportunities throughout the five boroughs.

What we've continued to see, however, is that these fires occur in residential apartments. Overwhelmingly, we see deaths in residential apartments where batteries may already be banned, where the device is illegal; or even, we are seeing makers go as far as putting fake UL stickers on devices. So, we know that we have to keep going on this issue.

There's three critical areas that we're going to continue to fight for additional regulation and additional education and enforcement. First, at the federal level, we were in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, asking Congress to pass a ban on non‑UL certified devices from entering the country. That is critical.

We here in New York City have already banned these unsafe devices, and yet we continue to see them show up, we continue to see them in homes and we continue to see them killing New Yorkers. And so we are calling on Congress to ban these from ever entering the ports in the first place so they cannot be sold or resold.

We are also going to go to Albany in the next few weeks and support the governor's bills — many of which mimic bills we've already passed here in New York City — to make sure that these devices can't enter the State of New York. And finally, we'll be putting forward a new package of bills in the City Council that will build on the work we've already done with the City Council over the last year, will give us additional enforcement authority and will give us additional fines in order to continue to crack down on those who use these illegally or tamper with them illegally, making New Yorkers unsafe.

I want to reinforce that while this is happening here in New York City and we have been leading the charge — as New York City always does — this is a national problem. We have seen in every single district that we lobbied in Congress that they had a fatal bike fire of some type or some other consumer device involving a lithium‑ion battery.

So, we are determined to lead the country on this issue. Make sure that any device that you have in your home, whether an e‑bike or something else powered by a lithium‑ion battery, is safe and that you can guarantee that you and your family are safe when you buy something from a store or from an online retailer.

This has repercussions for our future. We're looking towards a greener city, that's something that the fire service needs as well as cancer rates continue to rise in first responders. And so we want to make sure that as the continued expansion of these batteries happens, they are being built safely and that New Yorkers can count on their safety.

It is really only a matter of time until we might be living in a world where you're on a fully electrified block with a home that contains dozens of consumer devices with these batteries, an electric‑powered car and an energy storage system in your basement.

That is why we will keep talking about this issue until we know that it is safe and why we'll continue to insist that first responders and public safety be at the table whenever we are developing new technologies.

That is why we are so thrilled about the mayor's announcement in the State of the City to put together a new agency that would govern all types of new mobility technologies that will ensure not only that we can find and trace the source of many of these dangerous devices, that we can hold those online retailers, the apps that are online and users of bikes to hold having a safe device, but it also means that the next device, the next e‑bike, can be regulated before it causes this type of damage in people's homes. Technology is our future, and as a public safety agency, we are determined to use it safely.

On that note, one other thing I wanted to mention today is another way that we are trying to use new technology in order to make New Yorkers safer, and that is announcing a partnership that we have with NYU that will allow us to use AI to predict traffic patterns with the end goal of making responses to emergencies shorter by understanding our streetscape, our traffic patterns and how we can get our firetrucks and our ambulances from their stations to your home faster in the middle of an emergency.

We are looking to the public to help us continue announcing these efforts, and we will be working with our city, state and federal legislative partners to continue advocating and lobbying to pass these critical changes. Thank you, Lou.

Assistant Deputy Mayor Molina: Thank you. So, with that, I'll open up to questions.

Question: So, on response times, you mentioned using AI. You know that the latest Preliminary Mayor's Management Report showed that response times have risen somewhat. Is that kind of the primary way you're going to try to address that? And what do you attribute the kind of the higher response times? Can you just tell us a bit more about how that would work with using AI for that purpose?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: Yes. So, there's a couple reasons for rising response times, the primary one is traffic, and so that's why we believe AI can be so powerful. But the other one is rising call volume, so there are just more people calling 911, especially for medical emergencies. Year over year, medical emergency calls go up, so EMS continues to be busier.

But when it comes to traffic, you know, understanding not only that traffic is growing, but where and why, right, and in what neighborhoods and being able to predict even how to place our resources based on those traffic patterns is really critical.

We can't control traffic, of course, but we can weigh in on where our resources are, and if we can predict where traffic is going to be the most difficult, we can not only place different resources there, but even alternative sorts of resources that you've seen in places like Times Square that already have issues with getting around, you've seen these mini ambulances, I think, that we have out there.

So, really understanding not only, you know, how much worse will traffic get, where will traffic build, but particularly how we can redeploy our resources based on predicting that rather than waiting for it to happen is really critical for trying to reduce those response times, even with growing traffic and growing call volume.

Question: And how far along are you with that effort to kind of implement using AI to do that?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: So, that partnership is new. We have been doing this for a while internally. It's really a matter of, you know, the AI space is one that, you know, we just don't have experts internally that can go to that next level. Also, by partnering with NYU we get access to some data sets that private companies have like Waze.

So, we've already done a bit of this modeling and have been doing it for years. It's already a daily practice for us to redeploy resources based on existing traffic patterns. But this will give us something starting now and we expect to have results within the next year that we haven't had before that's mostly about predictive analytics and AI.

Question: The mayor announced a new agency potentially to form, to basically deal with lithium‑ion batteries. It seems like the FDNY has really taken point on this. How in the conversations you have had of how many people in the FDNY would fold into this or how they would fall under FDNY. Like, what conversations about this new agency does the FDNY have?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: Yes. We've been part of this conversation from the beginning for exactly the reason you mentioned, which is that we do feel that it will play a major role in actually reducing these fires, even just in the existing e‑bikes, putting aside any new technology for a second.

Because as you've seen, if you're watching the video, these bikes are so heavily damaged after a fire that it's often nearly impossible to trace their origin. Right? So, one of the best ways to try to prevent these illegal bikes is to hold people accountable.

So, whether it's the producer, the importer, the seller or even an app company that may have a number of these bikes being used by their contractors or employers, being able to trace that and hold those people accountable is essential, and it's very, very hard to do that right now.

The origin of these bikes is often unknown, where they might be being tampered with or worked on is also often unknown. These are often illegal shops that we have to come across. So, an agency that requires some amount of traceability just through licensing will be a huge boon for us.

We'll be able to turn to our fire marshals and say, you know, we know that bike company X is the cause of most of these fires, right? Or, producer X or company X. And that will allow us to do, I think, a tremendous amount of not only enforcement but just education around who should and should not be producing these and be in this market.

So, for us, it's an incredible opportunity. I also, as I mentioned in my remarks, I do think that there are other items. You know, it's e‑bikes today, but I don't want people to think that it's just one thing we have to get rid of and then we'll be safe.

It seems to us that as this technology rapidly evolves, and a lot of it is around this alternative form of transportation, the last mile as they call it, that we want to make sure public safety can weigh in ahead of time. You know, the e‑bike manufacturers did not clearly let us weigh in ahead of time. It's our goal going forward that we be on the front end of that conversation, and I think that agency will allow for it.

Question: Hi. Yes. In relation to the City Council bills that were recently introduced, how involved is the FDNY in those bills, those talks, so that those bills are successful and something that the Fire Department actually wants in the end?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: Very. So, a few of the things that we're going to be putting forward and that you've seen with the City Council are bills that are reintroduced that we supported in the last session but that didn't get passed.

Some are amendments to existing bills, for example, one amendment that we're making would extend authority for enforcement to not only be the Department of Consumer Affairs, but also our FDNY Marshals and Fire Prevention Unit.

And then some of the bills, we're going to look at new mechanisms for enforcement, so new ways to figure out, even in the spaces where we've already banned these but people are sort of doing it anyways, they're either selling the bikes anyways, repairing them or tampering with them or they're having them in their homes when they're not supposed to, we're going to look at new ways to enforce against that, whether it's new mechanisms for liability or whether it's increasing some of the fines and enforcement.

And a lot of that or all of that is based on our data from the last year, right? So, most of these bills have been in effect for about six months to a year. We did an analysis at the end of the year of where they worked and where we thought we needed more authority. And we're going to be making some amendments based on what we found.

Question: When your inspectors do these inspections, do they find, we saw quite a few e‑bike, legal and illegal operations, but do they find the majority of these illegal lithium‑ion batteries in residences or in businesses?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: So, we can't inspect in residences, so if we're finding these, it's either in a business or in a common area, which we can inspect of a residential building, but we can't inspect in a residence. So, a number of buildings ban these, but that is on the landlord to enforce that ban.

So, any inspection that we're doing is in a bike shop or in some other sort of commercial space that someone may call us. So, you've seen a lot of these are in the back of bodegas, so someone may call that in. I don't know, Chief Flynn, if you want to speak any further to that.

Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn, Fire Department: Yes, we're seeing them a lot in the commercial establishments, and this is an all‑of‑government approach. We are working hand‑in‑hand with DCWP, NYPD, we're going out doing joint enforcement.

But we need the public's help as well. So, we would encourage the public, if you do see a situation that you feel is unsafe, call 311, and we pledge that we will get out there within 12 hours to inspect that location.

But we believe that we've inspected every location, commercial location within the city for these dangerous devices. Many violations have been written. We've conducted over 500 of these last year.

But we need your help. These things pop up every day, and when we're made aware of them, we'll get out there in 12 hours to inspect.

Question: I don't know if you gave the statistic for this year, we're a month into the new year, how many fires related to lithium‑ion batteries this year?

Fire Commissioner Kavanagh: I didn't. Chief Flynn.

Chief Fire Marshal Flynn: So far we've had 18. We've had 18; this time last year, we were at 15. So, we're seeing a little uptick from this time last year, No fatalities, thankfully. Last year we had 18 fire fatalities related to these devices.

Media Contact
(212) 788-2958