Smoke and sparks.
Working with a junior Airman, I was excited for the opportunity to do some mentoring. After ensuring we had all the required instructions available, I began the inspection with the piece of survival gear that would be the culprit in this explosive tale, the PRC-149 survival radio and its lithium batteries. I worked with my fellow Aircrew Survival Equipmentman (PR) through the inspection and in accordance with the S9310-AQ-SAF-010 (AN/PRC-149 survival radio technical manual). We started with a visual inspection for any signs of damage or undue wear. With all the external components in good working order, we moved to the next step of inspecting the lithium batteries. We didn't see any signs of leaks, venting or damage. I removed the batteries from their holder and that's when the job changed from a routine flight gear inspection to a Class D firefighting and firstaid response.
Almost immediately after removal, the batteries in my right hand exploded into a plume of toxic white smoke and sparks that filled the shop. My first reaction was to drop what was in my hand, not realizing that one battery had already shot out of my hand and the other was just ash. The explosion had two main characteristics associated with it: toxic white smoke and hot sparks similar to a large firecracker. I received first- and second-degree burns to my face and hands. After the initial shock of the explosion, the shop sprang into action and immediately cleared the room of personnel while notifying maintenance control of the ongoing threat. The call was made to the base fire department as our maintenance team tried to get a handle on the situation. We had two injured personnel and a small fire still burning within a work center which housed flammable material.
With the fire department alerted and en route, our shop personnel began to do what they could to treat the burns and toxic smoke inhalation, while additional squadron maintainers entered the PR shop to help extinguish the small fire. I was taken to the emergency room where I was treated for first-degree burns on my face, second-degree burns on my hands and put on 100 percent oxygen for toxic smoke inhalation. An additional ambulance transported my coworker to the ER where she also was treated for toxic smoke inhalation. The shop suffered only minor cosmetic damage, some charring on the ground and work table, and was cleared of the hazardous material. My co-worker and I were both released later that evening and back on the job the next day, eager to debrief the event and provide some valuable lessons learned.
I want to pass along lessons learned for what we did well and some items we could have improved on. First, per the NAVAIR16-30PRC149-1 instruction, personal protective equipment (PPE) was not required for this inspection unless signs of battery damage were visible, which in our case there were none. If there had been signs of damage or corrosion we would have adhered to instructions and worn the proper PPE: goggles, rubber apron, and a face shield. While a lithium battery explosion is very rare, we should never become complacent when dealing with potentially volatile material. This means using ORM in choosing a safe place in the shop to do this inspection so that we can limit the exposure of the hazards should the unexpected occur. Second, this event resulted in a small fire which was easily contained by smothering the flames. However, had the fire been larger, a Class D fire extinguisher would have been needed to extinguish the flames. This class of extinguisher is not required in the PR shop, but after this recent event our command installed these critical fire extinguishers in the Paraloft and Aviation Electrician's Mate (AE) shops. Third, having little to no notice prior to these batteries exploding, we were extremely fortunate that the shop doors were open, quickly dissipating the toxic smoke and that the batteries did not ignite something else in the shop creating a much larger fire. This particular type of lithium battery has had a history of being volatile and has since been replaced with a much more dependable type of lithium battery on most aircrew gear, which hopefully will prevent this event from occurring in the future.
Lastly, the first aid training that maintainers receive is an effective baseline should we find ourselves responding to an emergency. However, first response training is a perishable skill and must be reinforced through routine refresher training. Only then will we ensure the best chance for success during these emergency situations.
This event is yet another reminder to diligently practice ORM during every maintenance evolution, no matter how benign or routine the task may appear to be. You may never know when the unexpected will happen, but when it does, you can fall back on your training like we did and prevent any serious damage or injury.
PR2 Shane Flaherty, VFA-122