Since October last year there have been 132 incidents involving battery overheats or fires aboard aircraft, according to the FAA. Until the recent series of Boeing 787 incidents, most fires occurred in cargo containers or personal electronic devices carried in the cabin.
Firefighting techniques surrounding lithium ion-powered devices change much of what cockpit and cabin crews have come to understand about fire suppression. Water actually turns out to be useful in fighting lithium battery fires, according to Aviatas, a UK-based aviation training company. The key to extinguishing these fires is to cool the battery from the thermal runaway condition that causes it to overheat, hence the need for water.
In Aviatas’s free 11-minute lithium battery safety training course, the company says that if the cabin crew detects a fire, it should notify the flight-deck crew immediately. Next, attempt to remove power from the device, but never pick up the overheating device by hand. Crews should review how to isolate online charging stations from the rest of the ship’s power in an emergency. Aviatas cautions that even though tiny batteries carry only small amounts of lithium, they will spray molten lithium as they burn.
Although ice is made of water, covering a burning laptop with ice actually risks an explosion. If water is not available, Halon is the next best extinguisher, followed by CO2 and wet foam, according to Aviatas.