Those benign-looking solar panels – the darlings of the renewable energy world – may appear to be nothing to worry about as they turn sunlight into clean power, but it’s a different story if you’re a firefighter.
Solar panels can be dangerous, if not deadly, to firefighters because when there’s light hitting the panels, they remain electrified even if the structure’s electric service is turned off.
That danger was brought home in early September at a fire that destroyed a 300,000-square-foot meat distribution warehouse in New Jersey. According to multiple news reports, fears that his crews could face electrocution hazards from some 700 solar panels on the flat warehouse roof kept the fire chief in Delanco, N.J., from allowing firefighters on it to fight the fire more effectively.
It burned for 29 hours, arguably causing far more damage than it would have had the solar panels not been considered an impediment
Panel safety and firefighting is a concern the fire service nationally is aware of. But electrical and fire codes to help remedy the situation have been slow in coming – and in Connecticut, perhaps slowest of all.
And solar panels are not the only renewable technology that concerns fire services around the country. Connecticut, even with its lagging codes, has been training crews on multiple renewable energy matters.
“What we’re seeing is technology advancing at a much faster rate than it ever has in the past,” said Jim Carroll, the program manager of live fire training and technical rescue at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks. “It’s hard to try to even keep up, never mind predict what’s going to be the next thing that we’re going to have to face.”
The academy has been updating its programs to deal with multiple forms of renewable energy. A class on solar panels is planned for March.
While there has been no catastrophic incident here, the recent New Jersey case is further evidence of the need for some action, apparent since a 2009 fire in a Target store in California first pointed to the problem.
For fire departments, including those in Connecticut, that use vertical ventilation when needed –- basically cutting a hole in the roof – the presence of solar panels that can not be individually shut down is a dangerous problem. It can sometimes mean there’s no place to chop a hole, and also possibly no place to even walk without risking electrical shock.
Standards are changing
A 2010 report on firefighter safety and emergency response for solar power systems by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research arm of the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), is spurring changes to the national electric code and the NFPA and International fire codes designed to lessen that risk.
The 2014 electrical code has provisions for a faster shutdown of the overall solar system and the conduit from the panels. But requirements for individual panel shutdown will not be likely until the 2017 code revision, said Capt. Matthew Paiss, a training officer in the San Jose, Calif., fire department and the go-to guy nationally on firefighting and solar and other renewable technologies.
Paiss said the 2012 fire codes have requirements for space between panel groups so firefighters can get across a roof, and it has stipulations for how systems must be labeled for firefighter visibility.
But Connecticut is far behind in its code updates. The state is currently operating on the 2005 electrical code, skipping the 2008 edition and, according to Deputy State Building Inspector Daniel Tierney, the 2011 code should be in place by the end of this year. But that 2014 code with the rapid solar shutdown isn’t expected in place until spring 2015.
The fire code is even further behind. Connecticut is using the 2003 international code. Tierney said Connecticut is skipping 2006 and 2009, but the 2012 version – the one with the setbacks for solar panels so firefighters will have room to maneuver – also will not be in place until spring 2015.
“Connecticut has a very good and long, proud history of very strong codes,” said Jeff Morrissette, the state fire administrator. “While we may be a little slow in coming to the table and adopting, hopefully we’re better positioned in the end.”
Solar technology also raises issues of how to handle newer panels that look like roofing shingles and how to deal with the hazards from leaks in battery backup storage units.
“It will take a number of years for all of these code changes to be visible in the marketplace,” Paiss said. “What we hope is that the industry will understand the desire for these technological advances and start bringing them to the market prior to that time.”
Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Solar Connecticut, whose father was a Hartford firefighter for nearly 30 years, does understand. “I am extremely aware of this issue,” he said. “Because I come from a fire service family, whatever it is firefighters need in terms of fire safety requirements, our industry will bend over backwards.”
Turbines, fuel cells and alternate-fuel cars
Trahan said he’s met with the fire chief’s association and has offered tours of solar installations to the fire service. But he said part of the solution would be educating municipal inspectors. “Lots of times,” he said. “It’s the first time they‘ve seen one.”
Bruce Angeloszek, owner of CT Electrical Services and an electrician turned solar installer, said he has no problem with more regulation on systems, but warned that additional safety equipment will mean additional cost.
“It’s going to cost the end user more money,” he said. “It’s going to raise the price of solar and what’s going to happen is it’s going to be out of the market for a lot of people.”
Solar power is not the only renewable or alternative energy technology the fire service is confronting. Wind turbines pose hazards from a firefighting perspective as well as from a fire department’s role as a first responder in rescues.
With a generator and rotor high off the ground, there is concern that a fire could shoot sparks. And because turbines are often in remote areas, it may take fire or rescue crews a long time to get there.
“There have been several instances I know where these devices have caught fire,” Carroll, of the Connecticut Fire Academy, said. The responders were relegated to making sure burning pieces fell down safely, he said. “They had to let the unit burn out.”
That said, the academy has added a lead climber program to help train fire crews to climb tall structures -– something they hadn’t trained for in the past -– using facilities at Lake Compounce for practice. While the training is useful for access to things like cell towers, it is also applicable to wind turbines.
Fuel cells with their flammable hydrogen source are also of concern, though experts point out they are easy to shut down, are in self-contained units and even if hydrogen should escape, it is very light and dissipates quickly. The gas is also among many hazardous materials firefighters regularly train for.
But the longest standing concern has been alternative fuel motor vehicles -– not instantly recognizable because they look like conventional vehicles, but with unique requirements for firefighting and rescue.
The first step, said Carroll and others, is figuring out if a vehicle is alternative fuel – and if it is, what kind: Electric, natural gas, hybrid, biofuel. The fire service has been working with the auto industry to make that process easier.
“We need to be able to recognize them as alternative fueled vehicles whether they’re sitting on their wheels, they’re on their side, they’re on their roof,” Carroll said.
The second step is to determine if they’re running. The standard way of listening is not so good in the alternative fuel world, since there is little or no sound.
Then it’s securing the fuel source, which is often in nonconventional locations. In the compressed natural gas car on the academy’s training lot in the shadow of Bradley International Airport, the tank is behind a barrier in the trunk. And there’s the battery -– not an issue if it isn’t punctured, but even if it is, it’s liquid lithium, not the far more dangerous solid lithium.
In the last year and a half, the NFPA did firefighter training in all 50 states specifically on these issues with vehicles. An online training program based on it is now available.
But there’s a new component to the energy vehicle mix – recharging stations for electric vehicles and fueling for fuels other than gasoline.
Not lost on the fire service however, is the irony that fire departments often use renewable energy –- especially solar -– to power their stations and operate equipment.
“What the fire service wants to do is to be able to support the consumers with this green energy, but also to be able to maintain their safety,” said Ken Willette, the manager for the public fire protection division of the NFPA. “The industry is aware of the issue and wants to support raising responder safety, so I think that’s all good.”
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