Lithium Batteries Onboard? 5 Ways to Manage the Potential Risk of Cabin Fires

As recent news stories have shown us, the desire for smaller and more powerful devices has led to an increased threat of Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) combusting as manufacturers try to meet user demands.

Lithium Batteries Onboard?

The FAA has already banned the Samsung Note 7 from all commercial flights, but what about your flight department? At the moment, the FAA has not banned these devices on private or commercial/charter flights, so it’s up to you to set your own policies and to make sure your passengers are aware of them.

Here are five ways to mitigate the risk on your own aircraft:

1. Complete a Safety Risk Assessment (SRA)

We recommend that everyone familiarize themselves with SRAs; FAA SAFO 16001 contains a helpful list of things operators should consider. An SRA may vary with different aircraft depending on how they are equipped (e.g., fire fighting equipment) and the type of flights generally taken (e.g., long extended overwater operations vs. terminal/domestic operations). Completing an SRA will allow you to gain valuable information by taking stock of where you should be focusing, as well as inviting participation from everyone in the operation on mitigating this serious and real risk.

2. Establish procedures for the transportation of electronic devices

As with anything in your operation, your SRA findings should lead to the development of clear procedures, such as:

  • Not leaving devices in direct sunlight for extended periods of time
  • Not leaving devices in the aircraft unattended while charging
  • Monitoring device temperature and discontinuing use if warmer than normal
  • Asking passengers if they are carrying devices known to be at higher risk

3. Include onboard fire procedures in passenger briefings

While in flight, the first people to notice a PED that could become a fire hazard may be your passengers, so it is important that they are briefed and instructed on what to do, as they are your first line of defense. Include procedures for handling such situations in the pre-recorded passenger briefing, oral briefing, and/or printed materials to help reduce response time.

Such procedures may include:

  • Notifying flight or cabin crew
  • Locating and using fire extinguishers and fire containment devices
  • Using towels to cover nose and mouth to filter smoke
  • Moving away from any fire
  • Ensuring therapeutic oxygen is moved away from a fire

4. Make in-flight fires part of your recurrent training

Given the pervasiveness of PEDs and the corresponding increased risks of PED-related fires, in-flight fires should be emphasized in recurrent training for both pilots and flight attendants. Part of this training could include familiarization with regulatory guidelines, procedures, and industry best practices.

FAA AC 120-80A is a valuable source of information for handling in-flight fires, as it covers topics such as the use of halon and water fire extinguishers. The AC also includes procedures for after the fire is extinguished such as dousing the device with water or other nonalcoholic / nonflammable liquid to help cool the device.

5. Equip your fleet with fire containment devices

A fire containment device can be excellent supplementary support for PEDs that have not yet caught fire but may pose a fire risk, as well as for PEDs that have already caught fire and where initial steps to extinguish the fire have failed.

Containment bags and boxes are made out of high temperature resistant materials and are specifically built to contain not only the fire, but smoke and toxic fumes as well. Some may even contain fire suppression systems within the containment device. Note that some kits come with a glove or other means of handling or scooping the PED into the container. If yours does not, consider adding a thermal glove to your kit.

Batteries are a real risk in PEDs, and while the industry has long had procedures for battery fires for onboard aircraft equipment, it is clear that those should be extended to PEDs and other battery-operated devices brought on board the aircraft during a trip, since they have become such a common part of daily life.