Hagerstown Fire: Research to do after facing issue with hydrogen-powered battery at Amazon

An Amazon warehouse along Wesel Boulevard was evacuated Saturday after an emergency responder's carbon monoxide alarm activated.

Hagerstown Fire Chief Steve Lohr said Monday that no one was taken to the hospital from the incident, but over 100 employees were evacuated and sheltered at businesses across the street for several hours.

The incident left Hagerstown Fire officials with homework to do regarding nickel cadmium batteries like the one discovered Saturday on a lift vehicle in the warehouse. The battery was venting H2S, which is hydrogen sulfide, Lohr said. Hydrogen sulfide is a byproduct of venting, also called off-gassing, from nickel cadmium batteries, he said.

Amazon officials helped emergency responders move the lift out of the warehouse to the parking lot, he said.

“The health and safety of our team is our top priority, and we’re thankful for the support of the local fire department," Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson wrote in an email Monday afternoon. "Out of an abundance of caution, we evacuated our building after sensors indicated possible carbon monoxide in the area. The fire department declared the site safe to resume operations and we'll continue to work with them as they investigate."

What we know about the incident at the Amazon warehouse in Hagerstown

Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway EMS personnel arrived at the warehouse Saturday morning for a report of an injured person, Lohr said. When EMS personnel entered the building, the carbon monoxide alarms on their bags alerted them to elevated levels of carbon monoxide, and they called for assistance.

Hagerstown Fire officials used more sophisticated sensors, which also activated as they walked throughout the building, Lohr said.

That led to a lengthy investigation, Lohr said.

This Herald-Mail file photo shows the Amazon fulfillment center at 1115 Wesel Blvd. in Hagerstown.
This Herald-Mail file photo shows the Amazon fulfillment center at 1115 Wesel Blvd. in Hagerstown.

The readings were highest around the lift vehicle that was removed from the warehouse, Lohr said.

An EMS task force evaluated several employees as a result of the incident, Lohr said. No one was found to have carbon monoxide poisoning and no one was transported to the hospital from the out gassing incident.

Evacuated employees were sheltered across the street, on a cold and rainy day, at Labers Furniture and Red Barron Flooring, Lohr said.

Amazon and fire officials eventually decided to let the day shift go home and let the next shift report to duty near the end of Saturday afternoon, Lohr said. Emergency responders cleared the scene around 6 p.m.

A National Institute of Standards and Technology trailer-mounted fan makes its way via Interstate 70 to Hagerstown on Saturday to assist in an incident at an Amazon warehouse. Ahead of the NIST vehicle is Frederick County's Hazardous Incident Response Team.
A National Institute of Standards and Technology trailer-mounted fan makes its way via Interstate 70 to Hagerstown on Saturday to assist in an incident at an Amazon warehouse. Ahead of the NIST vehicle is Frederick County's Hazardous Incident Response Team.

Fans, including a large trailer-mounted fan from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., were used to ventilate the 1-million-square-foot warehouse at 1115 Wesel Blvd., Lohr said. Firefighters checked other areas to "make sure we didn't miss something" and monitored the air again.

The next shift was allowed in when it was determined there wasn't a hazardous condition, Lohr said.

Lohr said Amazon officials did a "stellar job" on Saturday, working in a timely fashion, and there was good cooperation with the corporate office.

What is Hagerstown Fire Department doing as a result of the nickel cadmium battery incident?

Lohr said there's no question the lift battery was off-gassing. But fire officials don't know if there truly were elevated carbon monoxide levels in the building or any other hazardous condition.

Fire officials believe the off-gassing led to false carbon monoxide readings on the initial sensor as well as the more sophisticated sensors.

Fire officials were able to avoid a fire, getting the lift outside, he said. Hydrogen sulfide is flammable, he said.

There's also a normal release of hydrogen gas with the charging circuits, Lohr said.

"Our homework this week is to search the industry and determine if there are better sensors" to eliminate cross contamination of different gasses like hydrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide so emergency responders can better detect what issue they are facing, Lohr said. There are many warehouses in the area and others are probably using similar equipment, Lohr said.

The issue also involves electric vehicles, scooters and bicycles as well as cellphones and other devices with nickel cadmium batteries, the fire chief said.

After an incident like this, one the fire department hasn't previously experienced, officials also will search industry best practices to see what other fire departments around the world are doing to address issues with nickel cadmium battery out-gassing, Lohr said.

The fire company was aware Amazon had vehicles with nickel cadmium batteries, Lohr said. The company also has a hydrogen tank outside and a fueling station for the batteries inside.

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All of those things passed code inspections, Lohr said. Amazon didn't do anything illegal or inappropriate, he said.

Lohr said he's not sure Hagerstown Fire officials were fully aware of the relationship between hydrogen and the batteries.

"When I toured that facility, I just assumed — and shame on me and everybody else, I guess — that the lift trucks were powered by hydrogen exclusively," Lohr said.

Lohr said he was not aware of the set of electric batteries powering the vehicles and the hydrogen source of energy for that charge.

That issue was not on the code checklist, said Lohr, reiterating that everything at the warehouse was found to be in compliance.

"Like everything in our business, there are times throughout the history of codes — that are traditionally revised every three years — where technology outpaces code compliance," Lohr said.

Hagerstown fire officials will educate themselves, looking into industry standards and working with Amazon to determine what steps are needed in case of a future incident, Lohr said. It might be that there is a cover to remove and something disconnected within a lift truck, but they will have to look into it.

Nickel cadmium in home devices too

The New York City Fire Department has been dealing with battery-operated scooters and bicycles that people charge near their apartment doors, Lohr said. If such batteries catch fire, that cuts off the escape route, he said.

Lohr cautioned people with such batteries in objects at home to keep those objects well-ventilated and in plain sight. Don't keep objects like a cellphone stuffed in a chair cushion beside you or have them covered by a blanket or pillow, he said. This is particularly important when they are being charged.

Anything that would accelerate a battery when it is overheating could result in fire, he said.

It's also important to make sure the appropriate-sized charger, as recommended by the manufacturer, is being used, Lohr said.

Lohr said Hagerstown Fire had a hard time knocking down an electric-vehicle fire over a year ago at U.S. 40 and Cleveland Avenue. Firefighters used water and foam.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Hagerstown Fire researching sensors, batteries after Amazon incident