Solar panels present firefighters with new challenges

A department is creating a curriculum on handling solar panels in a fire, including how to cut through the roof and how to disconnect the system

By Elizabeth Donald
Belleville News-Democrat

MADISON, Ill. — Solar panels are everywhere, from tiny squares powering roadside signs to rooftops shining with panels harvesting sunlight for electricity — but they are presenting new challenges for firefighters.

One of the first things a firefighter does in a structure fire is cut the power for safety. But how do you do that when the power isn’t coming from the utility grid? How do firefighters ventilate a roof when it’s covered in solar panels without electrocuting themselves? Is it safe for a firefighter in full gear to step on a solar panel? (The answer is no, according to Fire Rescue Magazine.)

These questions pose a problem for modern firefighters and are some of the reasons the Madison Fire Department applied for grants to install solar photovoltaic panels at their station. Madison has received two grants totaling nearly $270,000 to install 236 solar panels, which are expected to produce more than 105,000 kWh of energy per year. That’s the emissions equivalent of nine homes.

In fact, assistant fire chief David Klee said the system will produce more energy than the fire department uses, which takes 98 percent off the electric bill and allows them to sell the excess power back to Ameren.

But it’s not just about saving money on the light bill. The system will serve as a teaching tool for first responders in Madison and other metro-east municipalities to learn how to deal with solar systems.

“The Madison Fire Department has always been on the cutting edge of providing services and state-of-the-art training,” said Madison Mayor John Hamm III. “We have had the pleasure of being able to provide our fire department facility and fire training tower to local agencies for many yeas to help them keep up with or expand their skills. Now with the addition of the solar panel project, we can provide another service to help educate our area responders while helping our environment along the way.”

The solar array is designed for numerous panels to be mounted in different ways, including some with a “sun tracker” that follows the sun all day and goes into storage mode at night. The plan was to install several different types of panels, so that the training program would offer the widest possible experience for area firefighters.

Currently the National Fire Incident Reporting System does not detail how many structure fires included a solar array, or how many firefighters have been injured fighting fires in solar-powered structures. However, given the rate of structure fires in the United States, experts have “a general expectation of how the data will likely trend in the future,” according to a study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2013.

“As solar-power systems continue to proliferate, the likelihood of firefighters encountering them at a structural fire will similarly increase,” the study read. The foundation’s study predicts that fire emergencies will be more likely at homes and small businesses, as they comprise more of the current solar installations than large commercial systems.

The U.S. solar market nearly doubled its reach in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The full report will be released in March, but preliminary numbers show that the total megawatts of new solar arrays installed in 2016 was 14,626 megawatts, a 95 percent increase over the previous year. In 2010, it was 851 megawatts. It’s also the first year that solar ranked as the top source of new electrical generation. It accounted for 39 percent of all new electrical capacity of any type in 2016 — more than natural gas, coal or wind.

Publications and organizations ranging from Fire Engineering magazine to the National Association of State Fire Marshals to the Solar Energy Industries Association have published articles and studies advocating for more training and education on solar panel systems for firefighters and other first responders.

“There isn’t really a place to send first responders for hands-on practice with any emergency that has to do with solar panels,” Klee said. “We don’t see (solar systems) a whole lot yet, but they’re starting to be more prevalent.”

In the meantime, the panels have been installed and are now operating at the Madison Fire Department. Klee said the department is coming up with a curriculum addressing all the issues surrounding solar panels in an emergency, including how to cut through the roof, how to disconnect the system and more.

So far, he said, Madison is the only department of which he’s aware that has this kind of training program in development in the region.

Copyright 2017 the Belleville News-Democrat

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