One of the companies operating dockless e-scooters in the District has spent the past few weeks putting out fires.
Last week, Skip’s operating permit was suspended for 30 days after a series of fires involving the company’s equipment, some of which the District Department of Transportation apparently didn’t know about until well after the fact. The fires started catching public attention on May 30, when a parked scooter caught fire on a D.C. sidewalk, and then again nearly a month later, when a case full of lithium batteries caught fire in Skip’s downtown warehouse. After that fire, DDOT learned about two more fires in Skip’s warehouse last year, and they issued the 30-day suspension.
And apparently, there’s yet another Skip-involved blaze that city officials never knew about.
Surveillance video provided to DCist shows that in October of last year, a Skip scooter exploded in the backyard of a D.C. resident who was charging a group of scooters under the stairwell of his building. The resident, Thomas Gallaway, was working at the time as a Skip ranger, gathering up scooters at the end of the day and bringing them to his home to charge them. Gallaway tells DCist that, in the six months he worked as a ranger, he generally charged between 12 and 20 scooters in his backyard every night.
Gallaway calls himself a scooter enthusiast—he was excited by the technology, and he wanted to involve himself in the rollout of dockless scooters in D.C. He even has his own personal scooter, which he rides to work every morning. “I was just really interested in the technology and the concept,” he says.
On October 18, 2018, shortly after 6 a.m., one of the scooters charging in Gallaway’s backyard exploded and caught fire, burning for nearly three minutes before a downstairs neighbor took notice, opened her door, and began throwing buckets of water on the blaze, according to Gallaway and confirmed by surveillance footage that he shared. Neighbors notified Gallaway about the fire, he says, and he ran out of his apartment to see flames at the bottom of the stairwell. He ran down to the scooter, plucked it from its spot among the others, and flung it onto the grass, where it lay smoking (the stench of the burning scooter pervaded the neighborhood throughout the morning), he says.
The neighbor throwing water managed to put the fire out and there wasn’t any damage to his building, so Gallaway says he never called the fire department.
Instead, he drove down to Skip’s downtown warehouse later that day and brought the scooters that had been burned in the explosion (but not the exploded scooter, which he left on his grass). He explained to employees there what had happened and showed them the footage. “Their jaws dropped when they saw it,” he says. Two hours later, Skip engineers showed up at Gallaway’s home and carted off the burned scooter, telling him they were sending it off to California so their team could figure out what had happened.
On October 23, a few days after the explosion, Gallaway sent Skip a two-page document outlining what he believed could have happened to the scooter, according to emails provided to DCist. Gallaway is a network engineer with some experience in electrical engineering, and he said he thought he had identified some serious safety problems with Skip’s scooters. He believed an electrical problem with the charger had likely caused the scooter’s battery to overheat and eventually explode—and he thought the problem could be easily replicated, especially if someone purposefully tampered with the scooter.
“But then two months later, I still didn’t hear anything about it,” Gallaway says.
So on December 9, he sent a follow-up email to Skip representative Phil Cardenasto ask about it. “I never heard a follow up or update on the situation where the scooter blew up. Curious as what they found,” Gallaway’s email reads.
The two set up a phone call that month, according to the email exchange. Gallaway says that over the phone, Cardenas was vague about why the scooter exploded and implied that it may have been Gallaway’s fault. By this time, the company was switching to a new kind of scooter, and Gallaway suspected the change had something to do with the safety problems in the old model. He says Cardenas told him that the old model of scooter didn’t have all the certifications the company wanted it to have, so Skip decided to switch to another one.
A Skip spokesperson confirmed to DCist via email that it deployed a different manufacturer’s scooter in D.C. more than six months ago. The company says this was due to “a variety of factors from intentional vandalism to design changes by a former manufacturer.” The statement continued: “Skip continually evaluates these and other operational factors to ensure that deployed scooters are as safe as possible, working with third party and internal experts. We are excited to share more about our own custom hardware soon.”
However, Skip did not answer several questions posed by DCist about the fires at its warehouse in the District and in Gallaway’s backyard. D.C. Fire has confirmed to DCist that a charging scooter caught on fire in the basement of Skip’s downtown warehouse in September of last year (well before Gallaway’s scooter exploded) due to “an unspecified electrical event.” In November, there was yet another fire involving a scooter at Skip’s warehouse on K Street NW, though the fire department was not called to the scene in that case, according to D.C. Fire.
Skip did not confirm or explain these fires, saying only that “incidents occasionally occur in warehouse environments and our staff is appropriately trained to handle them.” Regarding the scooter explosion in Gallaway’s backyard, Skip first ignored the question, and after a follow up said that it would “not comment further on retired scooter models.”
After the explosion in Gallaway’s backyard, Skip kept that scooter model on D.C. streets for about two months before transitioning to the new model.
DDOT, for its part, tells DCist via email that Skip did not notify the city about the scooter fire in Gallaway’s backyard. The current terms and conditions of DDOT’s permits for dockless vehicles do not require scooter operators to tell the city about fires.
The agency granted Skip a permit to operate at least 600 vehicles in the District at the start of this year, along with thousands of other scooters and e-bikes operated by other companies. On Tuesday, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill that would create new regulations for e-scooters in D.C., including a ban on their use during late-night hours.
Gallaway continued to work as a Skip ranger until January, when he says he was more or less fired. Skip realized he was using software he had written to help him pick up scooters at the end of the day, and told him that the software violated their terms and conditions.
Months after the explosion, a mutual friend connected Gallaway with the co-founder and CEO of Skip, Sanjay Dastoor, he says. The two spoke on the phone about why he’d been ousted as a ranger, and about some of his safety concerns and suggestions, according to Gallaway. Dastoor liked some of his ideas, Gallaway says, and suggested hiring him as a safety consultant for Skip.
Cardenas emailed Gallaway a consultation agreement in March, which Gallaway provided to DCist. But when he read it, he was put off by the confidentiality requirement in the contract. It was too restrictive, he says, and would have likely barred him from ever talking about what happened with the scooter explosion in his backyard.
Gallaway says he now thinks he should have gone public with the story about the scooter sooner. “This happened to me, it could have happened to anybody, and it could’ve happened to anybody charging inside a building, too. It could have burned the house down or gotten somebody hurt,” Gallaway says. He adds that Skip asked its rangers to charge the scooters indoors to prevent them from becoming damaged by water, but he’s glad he hadn’t followed that directive now. “If I would have charged that one inside, my apartment would have caught on fire for sure,” he says.