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Chatham Emergency Services Update

By Carey Ruppert - cruppert@chathamems.org
Chief, Skidaway Division

Hot Times from Your Smartphone

Cell phones have become ubiquitous, and it seems that they touch every aspect of our lives. But along with the convenience that smartphones bring comes some risks. Some of these risks, such as distracted driving, are readily apparent and have been widely discussed. One risk that is less obvious, but no less dangerous, is the possibility of a fire caused by either your cell phone battery or charger.

There are two primary causes of cell phone battery fires -- physical damage to the battery and overheating. Both physical damage and overheating can lead to a short circuit within the battery and possibly result in a chain reaction situation known as thermal runaway, which could lead to a fire or battery explosion.

Simply dropping your cell phone can damage the lithium-ion battery to the level it might experience a short circuit. You should use a case for your phone to protect both the phone and battery from damage. If your phone has taken a hard fall and shows any sign of damage, you should have it checked by a professional to ensure the battery isn’t damaged.

Overheating of your cell phone battery can be caused by charging, heavy usage, or by environmental factors such as sunlight or being left in a hot car. Your phone naturally creates heat while charging, so it is a good idea to charge your phone away from additional heat sources. You might also consider removing the protective case from your phone while charging, since like a heavy jacket, it traps heat inside. Long periods of uninterrupted gaming or streaming, especially while charging, also can lead to an overheated phone and battery. If your phone starts feeling very warm during any of these activities, take a break and allow your phone to cool off.

Fires caused by cell phone chargers often result from sparking or short circuits. This can be caused either by a damaged charger or charging cord or by the use of a cheap, off-brand charger. Inspect your charger and charging cord regularly for damage. Remember, pets love to chew on cords! Avoid off-brand or counterfeit chargers, as they often are manufactured with poor quality components and don’t contain the basic safety features contained in the charger provided by the maker of your phone.

One final practice that has led to fires caused by cell phones is charging a cell phone while in bed. It is not uncommon for people to have their phone on its charger, while in bed, and for them to fall asleep leaving their phone beside them. Recent research shows that many children/teens charge their phone or tablet while it is under their pillow. The heat generated during the charging process cannot dissipate if the phone is under the covers or a pillow, and overheating can occur. If you are unlucky enough to have a short circuit or a damaged battery, the worst could happen, and a fire could occur. Manufacturers recommend that cell phones be charged on a flat, non-flammable surface and should not be left unattended while charging.

Bottom line: If you follow a few simple precautions, your cell phone will remain an important asset and won’t become a dangerous liability.