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F.D.N.Y. Commissioner Blames E-Commerce Giants in Deadly Battery Fires

New York City’s fire commissioner stood outside the shell of a home where scooter batteries burst into flames on Sunday, killing three people, and blamed big corporations for contributing to a rising death toll from the power supplies for electric vehicles.

“Private industry can take action that would immediately save lives,” Laura Kavanagh, the Fire Department commissioner, said at a news conference at the fire site in Brooklyn on Monday.

Online retailers persist in selling batteries that don’t meet safety standards or falsely claim to do so, she said. Food delivery services have created an underground economy so profitable that for all the department’s enforcement efforts, low-cost and dangerous batteries, bikes and scooters continue to be sold, Ms. Kavanagh added. When inspectors close one shop that distributes these products, she said, another pops up to replace it.

“There is blood on the hands of this private industry,” she said, naming Amazon, Walmart, Grubhub and Uber Eats as among those responsible.

So far this year, 17 people have died in fires related to electric vehicle batteries in New York City, a “staggering” number, Ms. Kavanagh said. Those fires have pushed the city’s overall total of fire deaths to 93 for the year, putting it on pace for the highest number in decades, she said.

Experts say lithium-ion batteries can be safe if produced under accepted standards. But products that meet those standards can be expensive, and the current demand for affordable electric bikes and scooters, including among many low-paid workers who deliver food, is tremendous.

That has led to a flood of poor quality batteries that can catch fire for a variety of reasons, such as an internal failure, use of the wrong charger or excessive charging. Battery fires burn quickly and very hot, officials say, making them challenging to fight — and escape.

The Fire Department has done public education campaigns, worked for the passage of local laws stiffening enforcement, cracked down on rogue bike shops and asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to seize unsafe products.

So far this year, 17 people have died in fires related to electric vehicle batteries in New York City, the Fire Department commissioner said.Credit…José A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

But Ms. Kavanagh said there was little more officials could do without cooperation from e-commerce giants — help she said has not been forthcoming.

“We anxiously await to hear from the delivery apps and the online retailers who we have reached out to and not heard back,” Ms. Kavanagh said.

A Walmart spokeswoman said the company has “zero tolerance” for fraudulent sellers or false claims and immediately takes action when it learns of them.

A spokesman for Grubhub described the fire as a “horrible tragedy” but added that the company was surprised and disappointed by the commissioner’s comments.

“We have always tried to create a safer, more sustainable environment in New York City and have supported several initiatives to promote fire safety and access to certified equipment,” said the spokesman, Patrick Burke. “We stood with F.D.N.Y. and city officials earlier this year to commit to increasing fire safety education and outreach.”

A spokesman for Uber, Josh Gold, said the company agrees with the commissioner that online retailers should stop selling electric bikes not certified to industry standards, and has urged the city to impose a small fee on food deliveries to help the industry transition to certified bikes.

Amazon did not immediately response to a request for comment.

There was no indication that the scooters whose batteries are suspected as the cause of Sunday’s fatal blaze in Crown Heights were used to make deliveries.

Three generations of a family died in the fast-spreading early Sunday morning. Lithium-ion batteries from two scooters had caught fire on the first of three floors, engulfing the front of the house, officials said. The victims were identified as Albertha West, 81; her son, Michael West, 58; and her grandson, Jamiyl West, 33.

Firefighters arrived within minutes and encountered a wall of flames, officials said. They managed to get hoses inside, but were unable to quickly get to the victims. One was found on the second floor. A firefighter reached the third floor from atop a structure at the back of the house and pulled two others out, but it was too late.

“The people were unable to get out even under the best circumstances,” said Chief John Hodgens, the Fire Department’s top uniformed officer. “So it was very tragic outcome to a very difficult operation for our members.”

The Wests had lived in the late-19th-century home since the 1970s, when they moved there from South Carolina, a neighbor said on Sunday. He said Ms. West, the family’s matriarch, drove herself to church every week and held barbecues in the backyard.

On Monday, the contents of the house, now hollowed out and partially boarded up, were piled in front.

Daniel E. Flynn, the city’s chief fire marshal, said the department had found two standing scooters inside. They were severely damaged, as were their batteries, so it was impossible to discern the brands of the products or whether the batteries had been charging when they caught fire, he said.

As television crews filmed Monday, Fire Department staff brought out the two blackened, broken scooters and dumped them on to the sidewalk.

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