Monday, September 16, 2013

Solar Panels: A New Challenge For Firefighting

Since the launch of SEDA Malaysia on Dec. 2011, more and more rooftop solar arrays will be installed on Malaysia residential and commercial buildings. New challenges emerge for firefighters when a blaze erupts on these buildings.

U.S.A.'s fire departments are facing the exact problem. A massive fire erupted in early September this year at the Dietz & Watson meats and cheeses distribution center in South Jersey. The 7,000 photovoltaic panels installed on the roof of the center were blamed for the “complete destruction of the warehouse” as they prevented firefighters from opening up the roof to ventilate the structure while posing the threat of electrocution.

Risks posed by solar photovoltaic panels are:

(1) The panels can be activated by any light source so electric shock is always a possibility since the panels “can’t be shut off”.

(2) Another main hindrance is that the panels are covering large areas of roofs, firefighters are limited in where they can cut, causing the inability to ventilate the roof to release trapped flames, which would help to prevent the fire from spreading.

(3) The panels on the roof also limiting the firefighters where they can exit, as an alternative, which reduce the escape and survival chances.

(4) The panels also pose the risks of shock and trip hazards.

(5) Firefighters also need to consider the additional weight of the panels on the roof structure that may be weakened by the fire.

More information can be obtained from the report by San Jose fire engineer Matthew Paiss called Home Power.

Despite this highly-publicized incident where solar panels complicated firefighting efforts, this occurrence is actually rare. "There are hundreds of thousands of solar systems nationwide and only a handful have been linked to fires since 1996,” according to U.S.A. Solar Energy Industries Association Vice President of Communications Ken Johnson when talking to The Star-Ledger.

To address the increased risks associated with fighting structure fires on buildings with solar panels, the Fire Protection Research Foundation released a 2010 study that highlights appropriate training techniques to prepare for firefighting in the alternative energy era. With the proper training and preparation, these new hazards can be safely mitigated.

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