IBEW Local 649 hosts solar array safety training for first responders

ROBERT HATTIER, executive director of the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund, discusses safety for first responders around solar arrays, which are increasingly popular in residential and business construction.  – Labor Tribune photo

Illinois Correspondent

Alton, IL – Fire fighters and other first responders need to take special precautions when disaster strikes a building with solar panels, as they learned in union-sponsored training last week.

The trainer was Robert Hattier, executive director of the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund and renewable energy director for IBEW Local 134. Hattier was invited to share the safety training by IBEW Local 649 in Alton, as he has been working with solar power for 20 years and knows the unique hazards solar power presents for first responders.

Some of the major hazards fire fighters might face in a solar-powered building include inhalation exposure, electrical shock and burns, falls from roof operations, roof collapse, chemical spills from solar batteries, and the potential for reignition.

While solar panels are required to be able to withstand golf ball size hail at 60 mph, that can sometimes be exceeded in Midwestern weather. A loose connection on the rooftop can cause a fire, though Hattier said that’s rather rare, with only 155 fires caused by solar panels in the last five years across the U.S.

But there can also be paramedic and rescue emergencies complicated by solar panels, Hattier said.

“If someone has a heart attack cleaning their gutters, or they could have an allergic reaction to a beehive under the array, or an electric shock hanging their Christmas lights,” he said. “So we can’t say we never go up on the roof, because if there’s a person up there, you have to go.”

But there’s no way to tell if the solar panels have compromised wiring and are electrified, and building standards vary as to how much space they’ll have to work on a solar roof. Each panel can support at least 150 pounds of pressure, so while walking on them is not recommended, an undamaged panel should hold their weight.

“But it’s tempered glass, so there’s very little traction,” Hattier said, comparing it to “walking on a waterslide.”

The batteries also pose particular risks, both for solar systems and electrical vehicles. It can take 10,000 gallons to put out those fires, Hattier said: not just to put out the fire, but to cool down the battery so it doesn’t reignite. That might be more water than they have in their trucks.

Hattier told the room full of fire chiefs and fire fighters some techniques for ventilating a roof during a fire that could help them safely, but he also called out the building inspectors for what he termed inconsistent enforcement of building codes, requiring design of the systems and construction to make it safer for firefighters to do their jobs.

“It’s in the building codes, but we need to make sure those codes are enforced,” Hattier said.

Hattier walked them through the safest processes for disconnecting a solar system during and after a fire, and the best ways to extinguish and contain lead acid and lithium ion batteries, which can reignite if not properly stored. There are also requirements in newer building codes for labeling and signage to help first responders know what kind of system they’re dealing with in an emergency.

He also showed them a portable dispenser of a liquid polymer that looks just like a large fire extinguisher. However, it was not actually a fire suppression device, but one that allowed them to create safe spots and circles of polymers around potential hazards to protect fire fighters, he said. In some places, construction of a solar array includes a mandatory $200 fee to provide a liquid polymer suppressor to the local fire department, so they have one on hand for every solar array in the community, he said.

Hattier said more and more fire departments have been asking him to bring this training to them, as solar systems become more popular.


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