As solar roofs become more popular and the technology within the industry evolves, it creates some challenges for firefighters.
According to an article published by the International Association of Fire Fighters, photovoltaic systems, commonly known as solar systems, were reportedly being installed every four minutes in the U.S. eight years ago. That number was expected to increase to one every minute or less.
The IAFF article stated, “Solar panels can pose a significant risk to firefighter’s safety with electrocution a real threat. In an emergency, every second counts, and PV systems are a challenge to how fast a fire can be put out.”
While the fire officials The Municipal spoke to separately acknowledge the challenge, they said training and preparation is the solution.
Sean Doran, fire captain and public information officer for California’s Orange County Fire Authority, explained a newer type of solar roof is a Tesla roof, which has integrated PV roof tiles, unlike traditional solar panels that extend from the roof and are pretty visible. “This becomes your roof,” he said.
According to Doran, the OCFA services 23 cities and some unincorporated areas, including the cities of Mission Viejo, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano. Within that service area, there are currently 35 Tesla roofs, but there are work orders for 300 more this year.
“It’s just a different system, but it’s (solar) here to stay. It’s just another new technology we deal with,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Captain Anthony Valverde, public information officer of the Glendale Fire Department, didn’t know the number of solar energy systems in his area. However, he said, “The more we’re out responding to calls and doing training, we’re seeing a lot more people are putting up solar.”
Valverde noted the new systems with solar built into the roof tiles while “more aesthetically pleasing are harder to spot from the ground.”
As far as whether a system exists that could alert firefighters to which homes have solar energy, both captains said there isn’t — it was up to the firefighters to keep up with what is going on in their communities.
Doran said in their area that kind of information “traditionally goes through the building departments, but there’s no checkbox system. Currently, we rely on firefighters in the field being familiar with the area.”
If an OFCA firefighter sees a new building under construction, “that’s the best opportunity to talk to the contractors,” according to Doran. He added that was the best time to determine how the building is being constructed and what type of technology is being installed.
Valverde noted commercial structures in Glendale don’t always put solar panels on the building but over the parking structure instead. The firefighters discovered this when responding to a car fire under the structure — not necessarily caused by the solar panels.
“We gather that information and input it into dispatch and create a tactical premise alert,” he said.
Doran also spoke of the importance of premise history notes, saying they record anything of consequence — lockboxes, dogs and solar systems among them.
Both captains related very similar procedures when arriving on scene, with first responders doing a 360-degree walk around the building to help identify potential issues — bars on windows, power lines that might be down, etc.
Valverde said when they arrive on scene and do the walk-around, “if there are more electrical boxes than there should be, the house has solar to it. More electrical panels on the side of the house is a clue.”
Even when firefighters cut the power to the solar panels, they are still a danger, especially in daylight but under other circumstances as well.
“The panels are still generating energy — studies show even scene lighting or the fire itself generates enough light (to produce energy),” said Doran.
Valverde noted, “Even on stormy or cloudy days, they still have energy.” He suggested putting tarps over the solar panels, but that creates different challenges. “Our operation needs to be quick — we do things as swiftly as we can so as not to add more danger to the operation. Roof operations are the most dangerous.”
He said of the way electricity travels through the panels, inverters and the house, “Once power hits the first inverter, it’s live throughout the whole event.”
In most fires, firefighters get on the roof and cut a hole in it to let the smoke and heat out. Valverde explained doing so allows “super-heated gas to escape and gives anyone trapped inside a better chance of survival. It allows the firefighters in the company going inside better ability to see to rescue and give the all-clear.”
When ladder companies go to the roof, the first thing they look for is if there is solar. Besides the risk of electrocution for firefighters, panels present other dangers as well.
“Solar adds a lot of extra weight to a roof, and a roof collapse is more likely under fire conditions,” Valverde said. “With these solar panels secured to the roof, we see a lot of roof failures and slide-offs, potentially harming firefighters on the ground. So we secure the area where we think it might slide down and try to avoid it.”
Doran said, “We know the dangers when we step on the roof.”
If OCFA feels it’s too dangerous to get on the roof, he said, “There are multiple ways to ventilate — we can go horizontally — through windows or use fans (for example). We have a lot of tools in our toolbox. Every scenario is different, and that’s part of our sizing the scene up.”
OFCA doesn’t really take any extra steps if responding to a fire with solar panels. Doran said, “Every fire is unique for these situations — it’s more about awareness, then making the announcement that solar energy is available, understanding that any light source generates energy, turning off the main power source and don’t make contact with the panels.”
Evolving technology and cooperating with companies
Both captains said the technology is changing. Doran specifically mentioned the Tesla brand, and Valverde mentioned newer systems with individual shut-offs on the solar panels.
When asked about communication between fire departments and solar energy companies, they said there have been efforts.
Doran said some changes he’s seen include an allowance for walkway access on roofs, plus setbacks that allow some space for firefighters to walk and cut a hole to vent the roof. Additionally, labeling has changed. Doran has seen more labeling and stickers in bright colors, often with contact numbers, that are visible from the ground. Though, Valverde said he’s not seen signage or labels in his area.
That discrepancy is explained by Eleanor Cummins and Nicole Wetsman in a Wired article from May 30, 2017, titled “Rooftop Solar Panels Are Great for the Planet—But Terrible for Firefighters.” They write that in 2012 “the National Fire Protection and the International Code Council started to incorporate language about photovoltaic panel installation into their fire codes. Modern fire and electric codes require enough space between panels for firefighters to walk and rapid shutdown systems that can quickly de-electrify panels. The latest versions, released this year, also call for clear signage on all photovoltaic panels and wires, so firefighters know what and where everything is. But not every state and county in the country is operating on the newest version of the codes — or any at all.”
Doran appreciates that Tesla has given his agency a roof to train on at its training grounds recently so firefighters can walk on it and test it out.
Valverde said, “Some companies reach out to go over training with us.”
He related that a couple of commercial solar farms approached the department, walked members through their operations and pointed out some things, telling them “if any of that catches fire, let it burn” because of the toxicity, according to Valverde.
In addition to actual solar panels, the captains mentioned other related items that also create challenges — battery storage systems and solar pool heaters.
“We’re starting to see more of the battery storage systems,” Valverde said. “They want to store the energy as well so they have battery storage systems in their garage to store power and use at night or whenever needed. We tend to have a lot of garage fires — not necessarily caused by the battery storage, but it adds to the hazard.”
Doran said they’re seeing more solar pool heaters. He explained that water goes up to the panels on the roof, and heated water goes down. He said, “It looks like solar panels, but it has PVC pipe leading to it.”
Situational awareness is key
“Knowledge of the systems is how we stay safe,” Doran said.
Both captains said their departments take responsibility for knowing their service areas and training on the different scenarios they might encounter when responding to a call.
“Any opportunities we have to train and walk our firefighters through different scenarios — we have to do our own homework and come up with our own training,” Valverde said.
The protective gear firefighters wear is pretty safe, and Valverde said, “Situational awareness of what’s going on — whether it’s solar or more electrical lines to watch out for — there’s a safety officer watching whatever is going on and keeps everyone informed.”
Doran offered this advice when dealing with solar: “Know your area, get out in the community, take the opportunity to see buildings being built and reach out to the solar companies and form relationships.”
Valverde concurred. “The biggest advice is training. Reach out to solar companies — they usually have experts in the subject matter who’d love to come and train you on what to do and what not to do.”
He added, just like with local gas and electric companies, if a department doesn’t already have a relationship with solar energy companies in the area, they should create one.
Doran concluded, “These tenets apply to any situation. We train to survive. Situational awareness is always at the forefront of everything we do.”