I was speaking with my friend and colleague, Mike Kelly, last week when he told me about his iPhone bursting into flames a few days earlier. As an iPhone owner and an Apple advocate, the part that most shocked me was Apple’s lack of immediate issues and crisis management. As Mike told me his story, I found myself writing down a page full of notes, lessons and take-aways that I felt extremely important to share with you here today. Before I get to those important lessons, here is Mike’s story:
“On August 20th, just before noon, I was walking through my living room when I heard a loud pop and crackling noise behind me. I turned toward it and saw a fire in the other end of the room with flames about a foot high and a foot wide. I quickly approached the flames to find that it was my iPhone 4 on fire. Looking around, I grabbed a newspaper from a nearby desk and used it to smother the fire, which surprisingly put it out immediately. Smoke continued for a bit and the heavy smell of burnt filled my home.
As I happened to be in the same room at the time of the fire, it luckily only had the chance to burn for about 20 seconds. The book it was sitting on was covered in black soot and the rubber bumper frame (an option supplied by Apple to get around the antennae problem the iPhone 4 had) was split and bent back near the top. The glass was smoky, looking like it had been in a fire and underneath the glass looked cooked. I put the phone on the newspaper and took it outside. I later found the paper to be burnt where the phone had been, though in a smaller footprint.
The phone didn’t explode in the sense of a great wall of pressure damaging things near it. It did, however, burst suddenly into significant flames starting with a loud pop and crackling with a whooshing sound – similar to the sound of a blowtorch. The flames were about a foot high and a foot wide and after the initial whoosh, it sounded like something really hot crackling and baking… IN MY LIVING ROOM!
The phone had been plugged in, charging overnight with a standard Apple charger. It had not been damaged, dropped, immersed in liquid, etc. and was working fine before the fire. Luckily, there was no damage to the house or contents except for the book cover and phone itself. But the smell remains and three days later the fumes are still in the house and my homeowners insurance has a $2,500 deductible, so won’t cover the cost of a cleanup.
After the fire, I was left shaking for hours. I kept thinking that, had I not been in the same room at the time of the fire, or had it been night time, it would have probably spread through a good part of my home before we would have been able to call the fire department.
To top it all off, left without a phone – which is my business lifeline – I had the most unpleasant and stressful experience with Apple.
Within two hours of the fire I called Apple at the general number, since the website gives no number for reporting iPhone fires. I told the operator that I had just experienced an iPhone fire and asked with whom I should speak. She routed me to a customer service number, which took approximately 5 minutes before I hung up, called again, and when the operator routed my call the second time, the call disconnected. On the third attempt, I got through to a person who had a comforting human reaction appropriate for the situation. They made sure I was all right, that the situation was under control (fire out, fire department or police called, etc.), then inquired if I was OK, making that the absolute priority.
When I asked what I should tell my doctor I had been exposed to (since I had breathed in all kinds of toxic fumes), she put me on hold before coming back and saying that the engineer said to tell the doctor I had inhaled burning plastic – which I later learned was not the case. What I had truly breathed in was burning lithium from the burning lithium ion battery.
Once all of these conversations were exchanged, I explained how I (obviously) needed a new phone. She then transferred me to another department that would handle this aspect of my situation.”
At the time that I spoke with Mike (three days after the iPhone fire) he had still not been given a new phone and Apple was refusing to upgrade his phone from an iPhone 4 to a 4S or a 5.
Important lessons and take-aways for your organization’s issues and crisis management
The fact that the person that Mike finally spoke with showed compassion and care for his health and well-being is excellent and an absolute must. However, the fact that three days later Mike still found himself without a business phone and Apple showed no intent to upgrade him to a newer model as a show of remorse for the situation he endured, is unacceptable. This is a serious issue. An iPhone spontaneously combusted and put an Apple customer’s home and family in danger. The way the situation happened to play out made it an issue for Apple, but it could very well have been a crisis – and Apple’s frontline team should have been quicker to react and accommodate.
The two biggest crisis management mistakes Apple made – that your organization need not repeat:
- Train your staff and frontline to be able to detect potential issue and crisis situations – and give them the power to accommodate appropriately. Once your teams are trained, you need to trust them to be responsible adults who hold the organization’s best interest at heart. Had Apple done this, Mike would have been sent a new iPhone immediately by the first person he spoke with. When a situation happens to a customer or client, don’t make them wait or fight with your customer service for proper care and accommodations.
- Conduct a risk assessment / vulnerability audit before a crisis or issue arises, and have the appropriate response and management plans in place – and your staff trained. Apparently an iPhone combusting into flames is an iPhone risk. It may not be very common (thank goodness) but it is a known risk. As a potential risk, Apple’s frontline should have been trained on the proper procedures to take when faced with this type of situation. For example:
- Mike should not have been given false information regarding the fumes he was subject to. He should have been told whether or not he needed to go to the hospital, and his medical expenses should have been paid for by Apple.
- The cleaning of toxic fumes from his home should also have been supplied and paid for by Apple.
- Since this is a potential risk, there should be an online document that customers can refer to in order to have all of their questions answered when faced with this unfortunate situation. (There currently exists no such online document or FAQ for dealing with an iPhone combustion). This document should include medical and health answers and procedures, who to call, how to make appropriate claims, etc.
- Providing Mike with an instant iPhone upgrade would have been the minimum that I (as a crisis management consultant) would have expected from this mega brand.
Remember: This may have been an issue, but issues can easily and quickly escalate into crises. But also remember that this could have just as easily started off as a crisis. Negative, high-risk situations (especially those with viral potential) need to be dealt with as quickly as possible – with compassion and empathy. This is not something that Mike asked for, nor was it his fault. It was a situation that happened to him and he in no way should have been left without a phone or appropriate accommodations for so long.
Your frontline team NEEDS to be trained and empowered to handle high-risk issues and crisis situations within minutes of them being brought to the organization’s attention. Every customer or client is a stakeholder in your organization. Valuing them with actions rather than words or inactions is a must – not just for them, but for the reputation and bottom line of your organization.
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.
Melissa Agnes says
Thanks for expanding on the subject. I agree, there are plenty of things that Apple should be doing at this time to monitor and manage the situation more closely. I'm shocked that they are not.
To my knowledge, Mike did not alter the phone's battery. Another thought I had at the time of my conversation with Mike was whether or not he was using a third-party charger, but he clearly explains that he was using the Apple supplied charger at the time of the fire.
This is an issue that could have very well been a crisis – and is still a potential crisis in the making. I would like to see more issue and crisis management from Apple on this subject.
One, you have an unnecessary word in your title. Your inclusion of "appropriate" would lead a reader to the false impression that Apple gives any consideration to issues or crisis management. For too long, the Cult of Jobs allowed them a pass on just about anything, because how can you question Genius?!!
Two, your friend has great taste in books. I liked "I am a Strange Loop," although it will be hard for Hofstadter to approach anything close to Godel Escher Bach. If you haven't read that one, you should.
Melissa Agnes says
Lol. You're right about the title… ;o)
I've added the book to my reading list. Looking forward to reading it!
Nick Sharples says
A very interesting situation you have reported on!
There was a spate of battery fires in laptop computers some years ago now and the manufacturers made changes to the way that the lithium batteries were made following those incidents. I have not heard of any major battery fire related news for some time but as with any Lithium battery there is an inherent, but very, very tiny risk that something may go wrong with the internal power management/safety and result in a short circuit. Where I have seen this happen, on a variety of batteries and electronic devices such as adaptors, is when consumers use cheap batteries and devices they have sourced from the Far east via the internet, rather than the genuine branded article. Potential cost cutting on internal safety and power management measures can mean that the device, whilst looking identical, is not as safe as the branded article.
Given the now good safety record of lithium-ion batteries and manufacturer controls over who they will supply with the base cells, this incident should be a cause of concern to Apple. If Mike was using a third party battery (did they ask him I wonder?) they could issue an alert on their web site. If it was the genuine article then there is the possibility that there may be a manufacturing fault in a particular batch, or a fault that only occurs over time. In either case Apple should be investigating and keeping a track of such incidents to inform their risk management procedures.
Michael F Kelly says
Thanks so much for getting this story out there, Melissa. Hopefully Apple will start to see that a crisis for a customer from their product is a crisis for Apple, too.
It would be interesting to hear Apple's side of why they don't respond. One argument, I suppose, is that it only happens once in a million times, or something to that effect. To which my response would be; Yes, but it almost burned my house down. Shouldn't a few precautions and guidelines be appropriate from Apple? Everyone that I mention my iPhone fire to is startled and starts to wonder what to do differently. Apple, what do you say?
Melissa Agnes says
No matter how little this type of incident occurs, does not lessen the fact that it did in fact occur and put your home and family in danger. What always bewilders me is how this article (as an example) could have taken on a completely different tone, had Apple responded to you and met your requests in a timely manner. It still shocks me that organizations are so oblivious to the realities of today's always-on, social world.
By the way, today marks 1 week since your iPhone caught fire. Are you still without a phone?
Michael F Kelly says
I continue to hold off accepting Apples offer for another Apple 4 for a number of reasons, not least of which it allows me to post it on eBay, which I did, with the added description ‘only burned for 20 seconds’. Also, the Mercury News (San Jose) might like to send out a photographer to capture the full essence of the offending device. ‘Its in my car’s trunk because it smells so bad’ I say, and in the process giving the reporter yet another quote.
I found a very helpful young guy, Dominic, at my local AT&T store who figured out what I could do while waiting to see if I wanted the new iPhone about to be announced was for me. He said, how about getting a cheap phone on your account for a few weeks? It has voice and text messages and speaker phone which is all I need for now (a few weeks without phone contacts and angry birds -ok). He checked to make sure it wouldnt affect my rollover minutes, etc.and handed it to me in a few minutes: ‘Here you go. Done.’ and that will be $15.
THATS the way it should be done. AT&T up, Apple down.
Michael F Kelly says
Interesting update: Troy Wolverton, reporter for the San Jose (hence, Silicon Valley) Mercury News called Apple PR today 'to get a comment on what happened to you (i.e. me). He told me 'The PR folks there wanted to know more about your situation.'
So after a week of communicating with Apple about the 'situation' the PR department either didn't know about it, or pretended that they didn't know about it, to a reporter.
The person I had been connected to and communicating with confirmed he had no way to send any additional information to other departments and no way to handle it himself. He was in 'tech support'. This is where I was routed. Internal disconnect? Automatic response when nothing is a crisis?
Melissa Agnes says
Wow! So the issues here seem to be:
1) Like I say in the post, lack of empowering trained frontline employees to make appropriate decisions when red flags are risen. (These employees seem not to be trained or empowered)
2) Lack of internal communications across departments, channels, etc – which is a huge crisis hazard.
Very interesting update indeed.
Melissa Agnes says
Definitely keep us posted!
Michael F Kelly says
I sent a link of this post to the Apple Executive Communications (what does THAT mean?) person who finally contacted me after the Mercury News reporter contacted them. No sign yet that Melissa's advice has changed any directions at Apple. What are they thinking? Would be nice if they would at least share their that. They are not dumb.
K Lawrence says
Hi Mike and Melissa,
Having just seen the movie 'Jobs' about the Apple founder, Steve Jobs, I am dumbfounded and gobsmacked at the poor Apple response. Marketing has been the Apple success story. I have two phones. A Samsung Galaxy S4 for personal use and an iPhone5 for work. The Galaxy makes the Apple appear 'agricultural' in its applications and user interface.
Although I have heard stories of people having their Apple laptops repaired when they are out of warranty.
Regardless, Apple needs to get closer to consumers again. Marketing is not enough. Customer service is what will mark the future success of tech companies.
This is a very interesting post. I am also surprised about the delayed response from Apple. Even if these malfuctions are rare, Apple should have policies in place for handling such events. This type of event is completely different from the third-party charger issue Apple faced a month or two ago.
They do have policies in place: They ask you to bring in the iPhone so that they can examine it to determine the cause of the problem. If you do that at an Apple Store, they will likely immediately hand you the same phone or, if they don't have one in stock, a newer model, porting over your information from the old device if possible. It appears that Apple offered exactly that, and the gentleman insisted that he wasn't even going to let them look at his iPhone unless they first agreed to give him the latest model.
Is there another context in which somebody would expect an out-of-warranty device, in the owner's exclusive control and possession for about three years, that failed for unexplained reasons to be replaced with a new, upgraded version, even before the manufacturer has the opportunity to see it? If so, please identify some manufacturers who offer that type of no questions asked, post-warranty coverage.
Melissa Agnes says
Personally, I would have gone straight to the Apple store as well – which is something I told Mike. However, this shows a reality that many consumers still call the numbers available to them for customer service.
There's more to this story than what you've expressed, but you're correct in the overall of your sentiment on the issue of two-way. That said, I can't tell you whether or not Apple support ever asked Mike to go in to the store or not. That's something that Mike would know.
What I did want to communicate with this post was how organizations, Apple included, should be better prepared for all risks. Things like having a designated FAQ on their website and ensuring that customer support can, at the very minimum, inform customers as to the toxic fumes they've inhaled are minimum requirements for a known risk.
Thanks for weighing in, Laura!
I agree with you that Apple and other cell phone (and probably also computer) companies should, individually or collectively, create a site about these issues. I suspect that people might complain that they’re being pushed to buy OEM parts and used authorized service centers, but the risks of off-brand parts and unauthorized repairs is something that should be addressed, along with the signs of battery failure, signs that a charger may be wearing out, warnings about the type of damage that could precipitate a problem, that if your phone or similar device is too hot to comfortably hold that you need to stop using it, etc. Thanks to the articles I read after finding your blog post, I know that my laptop battery that gets too hot and is losing its capacity to hold a charge should be taken out of service.
The FTC or CPSC should be mandated to track these issues and their causes, with manufacturers required to pass along reports. (The CPSC does warn about unauthorized replacement batteries and third party chargers, http://tinyurl.com/n82xp3r .)
I found an example of some instructions, issued to airlines (not written for consumers, with a lot of ‘worst case scenario’ content, but still interesting): http://tinyurl.com/liionfires . In the “You learn something every day” category – use nonflammable liquids to cool the device but not ice, as ice can insulate the device and increase overheating. Also, from what I’m reading, if my phone gets wet (inside) it’s getting replaced, even if it still appears to work.
I’m not sure what would have helped Mr. Kelly, as he has not described any warning signs, and for all I know there weren’t any. That’s the scary part of this story, isn’t it? I know I would like to know what happened, even if it’s an exceptionally rare event.
Michael F Kelly says
Hi Laura. What you describe is certainly done many many times by Apple every day. They have a process and policy in place for things that often go wrong, and from most feedback, it works pretty well. So what causes a crisis? What happens differently that is not handled by policy? The rare thing? Is it when there is a threat to others not just the personal inconvenience? What if an organization's policies are the eventual trigger of the crisis? What are the triggers? And when it is triggered or about to be triggered, is that the time for policy or for human reaction? Any thoughts that can help us learn?
Michael F Kelly says
A footnote on my burned up iPhone: I sent an email to the Apple Executive Communications person who I had been talking too and asked if they could get me an appointment on launch day to buy a new iPhone without having to stand in line. She called back and left a message: No. We cant offer that. Stand in line or wait a couple of weeks.
In the face of now overwhelming evidence, I am forced to think that Apple's Customer Service function is to make customers align with strategy. 'Apple, Where Strategy is always Right.'
My iphone caught fire last night. My husband contacted Apple and they asked him a series of questions and said they would "get back to us." I think this is ridiculous! There have been no blogs or website I have found where Apple has announced that there could be a potential possibility of fire due to the lithium battery. My whole house filled with smoke and smell of electrical fire. My 13 month old was sleeping in the next room. Apple has a serious issue on their hands and needs to address it as a corporation who is responsible.
My Iphone 5 caught fire 4 days ago. . . By itself. What a nightmare. Been dealing with Apple for a while now.
In March 2013, my iphone overheated. An odor came from the phone and immediately my mouth, throat, eyes and stomach began to burn. I still have burning. I also have pain in my fingers of the hand that held the phone. I have been seeing a doctor ever since. I have been prescribed medicines. I have an appointment with another doctor on April 1. I sent a letter to Apple, and they sent me an email saying that they could do nothing.
Correction to my post above: In March 2013 when I called Apple and talked to Mike, he did advise me to take the phone to an Apple store.
Recently I had an experience similar to Mikes but with much worst outcome. On 5/13 at 4:00am in the morning, a charging Iphone 6 was sitting on the recliner next to my bed (my wife set it there to charge). She said a pop woke her up and she looked around but saw nothing immediately and got up and left the room to start coffee. A few minutes later I woke up to flames coming directly off the chair right in front of my face. I immediately jumped up and starting trying to pat it out with my hand but it spread fast leaving me with 3rd degree burns on my left hand and foot and ending up destroying my house and the loss of a dear pet Bulldog (Max). But I was able to get everyone else out safely. My point here is the fire started at the Iphone itself, on the recliner, and burned through it. It has been determined to be the source and was collected by authorities. I am actively looking for a lawyer now. I am finding and hearing more and more about this type of event with these phones. Why are they allowed to sell these without informing the public of there dangers more thoroughly?
BTW, that was 5/13/15 and the Iphone was only a matter of weeks old!
Bea EPPERSON says
Charlie, contact me by email, we have similar stories, we lost everything we own. Source of fire… Per fire fighters on scene, apples charger.. Not a knock off firstname.lastname@example.org
Bea Epperson says
I too lost my property due to apple charger (real apple not knock off) and I have been actively giving Apple the benefit of the Doubt that they do not want fires to be a epidemic and I feel confident that our safety as consumers is their priority… My fire was April 21, 2015 which ruined everything we owned. Fireman stated in written statement, the source of the fire was at iphone charger… After insurance met policy limits, we are upside down to the toon well over $150,000… gone instantly. I pray Apple shows compassion and does the right thing without a full legal team on my side. But im certain that with my evidence and photos, a civil suit would prevail. This is real people. Unplug chargers unless your setting their right next to it, Your families life could certainly depend on it.