FDNY Issues Violations on UWS Delivery Center for Dangerous Lithium-Ion Batteries

A constituent alerted Councilmember Gale Brewer, who in turn contacted FDNY.

| 11 Dec 2023 | 05:27

FDNY’s Special Inspection Unit slapped two violations on an Upper West Side quick delivery center for failing to properly handle lithium-ion batteries and maintain a working fire protection system. The store, run by a delivery company Getir and based on the ground floor of 2681 Broadway near West 102nd Street, is one of at least seven so-called “dark stores” across the Upper West Side, which function as small warehouses that can deliver groceries and convenience products to buyers. Customers are not allowed inside like they are in more traditional retail shops.

But the no-customers-allowed policy could not stop a constituent from noticing haphazardly-arranged lithium ion batteries through a window of the 2681 Broadway store who then notified city council member Gale Brewer’s office of the danger. Brewer then alerted FDNY, which visited the store, located the battery setup, and found additional violations relating to sprinklers and the fire alarm panel. The violation order issued by FDNY requires immediate compliance, and more visits will follow to ensure that Getir has corrected the unsafe conditions in accordance with city law.

Rechargeable and relatively energy-efficient lithium ion batteries have surged in popularity over the last decade. Electric cars, scooters, and bikes that rely on the batteries are now a more common sight throughout the city, as are accidents caused by improper storage and usage of those batteries, which contain flammable electrolytes. There have been 17 deaths and 239 fires from lithium ion batteries across New York City in 2023. This is up from six deaths and 220 fires in 2022. In 2020, zero deaths were recorded.

In one of the more recent incidents, on Nov. 14, batteries in two electric scooters ignited a blaze that consumed a Brooklyn brownstone and killed three residents, all from the same family. Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh blamed the deaths on retailers and delivery apps that sell and use uncertified and dangerous e-bikes. “There is blood on the hands of this private industry, both from online retailers who continue to sell these illegal devices to this day and the food delivery apps who continue to think the problem will solve itself,” she said.

Barely a week later, two people were hospitalized with life-threatening injuries after a fire broke out in their Upper West Side apartment on Broadway between West 98th and 99th streets. Lithium ion batteries and a charred e-scooter were found at the scene, and named as possible causes of the blaze.

The discovery of the Getir dark store’s improperly handled batteries and its lack of a working fire protection system caused alarm for Brewer, especially as it sits beneath 15 stories of residential apartments. “It’s frightening,” she said. “If I lived above the shop I would be very upset. One solution I’m fighting for is battery swap kiosks where e-bike and e-scooter riders can exchange their depleted batteries for fully charged ones. An accessible and affordable swapping network would completely eliminate the need to charge in commercial or residential buildings and take unsafe batteries out of circulation.” PopWheels, a Brooklyn-based battery swap company, is already participating in an upcoming pilot program in the city; Brewer requested a PopWheels kiosk in her district and is advocating for citywide expansion.

Brewer has already passed Local Law 42 earlier this year which prohibits “second use batteries,” a dangerous assemblage of a used lithium-ion battery using cells removed from other batteries. She is currently proposing Intro. 1220, which would require e-bike and e-scooter retailers to obtain a license to operate in New York City.

City politicians have also been turning up the heat on dark stores in general, with limited outcomes so far. Last year, Councilmember Christopher Marte proposed a bill that would require them to obtain a license in order to do business, but it has not advanced out of committee. Another of Marte’s bills would ban dark stores from advertising strict delivery times a practice which puts pressure on the deliveristas to get orders to customers fast and to have a place to recharge batteries fast, resulting in potentially dangerous shortcuts.

While dark stores are currently zoned as convenience retail establishments, some officials like Brewer have argued that they should be zoned instead as warehouses, because they do not allow customers inside the premises. None of the seven UWS dark stores are currently located within the 16D zoning regulation that permits warehouses.

“These unsustainable quick-service fulfillment centers are gobbling up real estate on commercial corridors throughout the city, and threaten to displace our local mom-and-pop groceries and convenience stores,” she said in 2022. “In most cases these stores do not comply with zoning or consumer affairs regulations.”

Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, and other Manhattan elected officials have called on the city to hold dark stores accountable. Brewer’s office partnered with BetaNYC, a civic technology organization, to map out the locations of at least 115 dark stores across the city, which she said could be a tool for the city to exercise oversight and enforcement. But for now, dark stores still count, officially, as convenience retail.