Responding to Personal Electronic Device Fires

A personal electronic device, or PED, is a piece of lightweight, electrically-powered equipment. PEDs most commonly refer to consumer electronic devices such as laptop computers, tablets, e-readers, smartphones, MP3 players, drones, electronic toys, and any other device capable of communications, data processing, and/or computing. Like any electronic device, there is the possibility that the PED can fail and potentially catch on fire. When bringing a PED aboard an aircraft, it is important to know how to prevent these fires, and how to react to one should it occur.

First, you should know that PEDs are more prone to failure when they are in use or when charging. As such, you should always monitor any devices you have in the cabin. Be sure they do not fall down the side of the seat, and do not leave them unattended while charging. When you are not using your PED, it is always most ideal to completely shut it off. However, even if you take these precautions, a PED can still catch on fire. Below, we will cover the steps to take in the event that a PED catches on fire within the cabin. These guidelines are based on ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) Doc 9481, which pertains to emergency response for aircraft incidents involving dangerous goods.

In the event of a fire involving a PED, the first two actions are to notify the captain of the aircraft and identify the compromised item as soon as possible. Once this is done, the next step is to carry out standard procedure of obtaining and using a fire extinguisher. Standard emergency procedures are in place not only for PED fires, but any fire. While Halon, a fire-extinguishing agent, has been shown to be less effective against lithium-metal fires, it will be helpful in extinguishing the surrounding areas as well as lithium-ion battery fires.

Next, if possible, remove the device from the external electrical power source. There is a greater likelihood of a battery catching fire through thermal runaway during or immediately after charging, although the effects of thermal runaway may not be immediately present. Removing the device from an external power source will ensure that additional energy is not flowing into the battery to promote a fire. After removing it from the power source, douse the device in water or other non-flammable liquid to cool the cells and prevent ignition of adjacent cells. A water extinguisher is the most ideal tool for this, but if one is not available, any non-flammable liquid can be used to the same effect.

At this point, you should still be sure not to move the device. Even after being doused in liquid, battery packs can reignite multiple times as heat continues to spread throughout the cells. Therefore, the battery pack could reignite while being moved and cause burns or other serious injuries. Finally, until the aircraft’s system is proven to be uncompromised, all power to remaining electrical outlets should be removed. This will ensure that the aircraft system does not contribute to additional failures of PEDs. After landing, there are two final tasks to carry out. First, inform the ground personnel of the dangerous item and where it is stowed. Second, make the appropriate entries in the aircraft’s maintenance log. While these steps will not necessarily prevent a fire from occurring, they will help you respond when one does.

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