I wrote this article a while back about the dangers that new alternative energy poses to firefighting operations. It is in NO WAY written to hinder, deprecate, or deter the use of energy sources like solar, hydrogen cells, etc… It is merely an article written to get us in the firefighting business thinking about how new technologies requires us to constantly evolve and update our training. I understand there may be some controversy with this article from long time firefighters and I am always open for suggestions and ideas. After all, isn’t that what Safety is all about? Throwing ideas out their to the community and compiling feedback into a solution is an excellent way for safety professionals to retain their competitive edge.
Anyways please read the article, I believe it brings some insightful thoughts and arguments into our world of fire fighting.a
Firefighters face an ever-increasing list of new technologies and components contained in structure, vehicle, and potentially wildfires. Alternative energy sources range from solar panels to hydrogen fuel cells in applications in vehicles and in homes (Grant, 2010). Recently, a new type of hardened solar paneled roofing material was introduced by Elon Musk; the implications for firefighting are far-reaching in all of these alternative energy sources. Waiting until response time to try to identify the correct procedure for a hydrogen cell home battery is not safe for firefighting operations. An effective and comprehensive approach to rapid identification, training, and response to include pre-planning with hazard analysis is imperative to ensuring all firefighters return home.
Alternative energy sources are a controversial topic in today’s society. The term refers to energy sources other than the conventional types including fossil fuels and coal (Rath, 2009). Alternative energy sources are becoming much more prevalent in all areas of industry and home uses. This can pose a significant risk to emergency fire response when it comes to understanding how to deal with energy sources other than conventional (Stowell & Murnane, 2013).
A common issue firefighters face is with vehicles running on fuel other than petroleum-based. Some examples of this is hydrogen fuel cells, natural gas-powered, and large battery cell vehicles (Stowell & Murnane, 2013). These vehicles pose a greater risk to firefighting operations due to the different attack procedures required. If the attack crews are not cautious or observant these alternate fuel types can cause serious explosions or allow electrical current back to the crews.
Vehicles pose a great hazard to any fire-rescue due to the nature of fire and the compact area of a vehicle. Fuel cells may not be the source of the fire, but they may be in very close proximity. Battery powered cars have very large cells that can produce thousands of volts at one time. While they may be very well protected, vehicle fires are never predictable. A cell wall may have been punctured allowing water to enter during the attack phase. This can easily cause an explosion or allow high voltage to be conducted back to the crews, who will be standing on a surface covered in water. Normally, firefighters will be protected by their turnout gear, however these personal protective equipment items are not rated to withstand electrical current and can allow it to penetrate and come in contact with the wearer (Stowell & Murnane, 2013). Natural gas powered vehicles can also pose a significant risk during a fire or collision. The storage cylinders are very well protected with multiple methods of containment, however, unpredictability during a vehicle fire can mean the tank is stressed or punctured. This can allow a rapid release of natural gas creating an explosion or increased fire/heat.
While alternate energy vehicles do have additional complications, any vehicle fire is potentially deadly. The main concern is that newer technologies have a lag time between implementation and training on how to respond within a firefighting crew. This causes mishaps and wrong decisions within the response and can mean a small vehicle fire turns deadly.
Structural applications are becoming more common as well. These come in the forms of solar panels, electrical storage cells, batteries, and fuel cells. There are many ways this can pose a risk to firefighting operations, most commonly in the ventilation steps and spraying water in the wrong areas during attack.
Solar panels can be a very difficult obstacle during a structure fire, these panels are usually mounted on or near the apex of the roof. During a structure fire, it may be necessary to cut artificial ventilation channels through the roof. Without ventilation, a significant risk is posed to attack crews in the form of backdraft situations that will kill crews (Barr, Gregson, & Reilly, 2010). Solar panels are not able to be cut through and can create a scenario where a structure is not able to be entered.
This is also a major concern with the latest solar technology, Tesla’s newest offering solar roof tiles. These are created from hardened materials and embedded solar panels, they are designed to cover the entire roof (Tesla, 2017). Not only do these create an issue in venting the structure, they will also hold in more heat (through the inability to self-ventilate like traditional materials). Holding in more heat is a deadly situation for firefighting operations, internal temperatures can well exceed the limits of the crew’s protective equipment.
Solar panels and the new roof tiles require an energy storage solution in order to utilize the electricity after the sun goes down. A storage capacitor can be a very deadly aspect of attack operations. Normally, electricity will be cut of to a structure prior to entering. However, energy capacitors can be internal and not seen or recognized until water is being directed towards it. As with vehicles, these capacitors are well protected, but in a fire unpredictability rules. Structure fires, especially with greater internal temperatures, can cause stress and fractures to the capacitor walls. If water comes in contact with it there may be a sudden release of the stored energy.
As mentioned above, the main concern with alternate energy sources is the lag time between development, implementation, and training for response crews. Safety concerns being addressed by the development team do not always translate into immediate training in all industries. When firefighting crews come in contact with newer technologies they may not recognize the dangers or understand how to correctly mitigate the hazard (such as disconnecting a capacitor from the rest of the building). The most effective way to ensure hazards are addressed prior to emergency situations is for a fire department to seek out newer technologies and alternate energy sources in their jurisdiction and develop training. A system safety approach is also critical to ensuring crews are able to safely handle these energy sources.
System safety is an engineering concept to incorporate mitigation into all levels of design and implementation. In regards to fire departments utilizing this approach towards alternate energy sources, system safety is imperative. Defining the energy types that crews may come in contact with, developing training, implementing and applying that training, and reviewing actions to ensure effectiveness are all steps that must be taken (System Safety, 2017).
Deciding what energy sources to train on requires the department to know what is being used within their jurisdiction. Structural applications can be difficult to discover, it is too time consuming to go to every building and ask what source of energy is in use. Larger businesses are a little easier since a preplan must be conducted for fire inspections, homes are the main concern. Educating the public is an important aspect to this, homeowners should be encouraged to let the local fire department know if they use anything out of the ordinary for the area.
Developing an overview of what sources of energy are used and the associated hardware has great benefits to both the community and firefighters. When the appropriate training and procedures for mitigation are developed, crews can safely put out structure fires quickly and efficiently. This reduces the damage to the buildings and saves more of the structure, which translates to less cleanup and repair costs. The benefits to the firefighters are immense, by knowing beforehand what to expect and how to handle it, crews can be confident they are as safe as possible.
Newer energy technologies are an ever-evolving aspect of our world (Rath, 2009). They can pose a great amount of risk in emergency response situations in many different ways. The lag time between development and local area training can be a factor in how effective crews are in working around the energy sources. Ventilation and attack operations can be impeded greatly by the hardware involved with alternate energy sources, in both vehicles and structures. Preplanning and training is imperative to ensuring the safety of the crews and damage prevention for structures.
Firefighting is a dangerous profession; the environment is a constantly changing entity. New technologies, hardware, and building materials can easily throw a firefighting crew off guard and require them to make a snap decision. If training and knowledge on how to handle an alternate energy source is not available, those snap decisions can have deadly consequences (Dearstyne, 2007). A system safety approach of ensuring mitigation and safety is built in to every aspect of preplanning for these energy sources is critical to the survival and effectiveness of attack crews. Training of both the crews and the public is important to ensuring everyone goes home safely at the end of every shift.
Barr, D., Gregson, W., & Reilly, T. (2010). The thermal ergonomics of firefighting reviewed. Applied Ergonomics, 41(1), 161-172. doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2009.07.001
Dearstyne, B. (2007). The FDNY on 9/11: Information and decision making in crisis. Government Information Quarterly, 24(1), 29-46. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2006.03.004
Grant, C. (2010, May ). Fire Fighter Safety and Response for Solar Power Systems. Retrieved March 4, 2017, from NFPA, http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/research-reports/for-emergency-responders/fireground-operations/fire-fighter-safety-and-response-for-solar-power-systems
Principles of System Safety. (2017) (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/risk_management/ss_handbook/media/Chap3_1200.pdf.
Rath, B. B. (2009). Harvesting alternate energies from our planet. Jom, 61(4), 73-78. doi:10.1007/s11837-009-0056-0
Stowell, F., & Murnane, L. (2013). Essentials of fire fighting (1st ed.). Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.
Tesla Solar. (2017). Tesla.com. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from https://www.tesla.com/solarroof