A few months ago, a big warehouse in New Jersey was destroyed by fire. It’s not the kind of story that normally makes national news, but it did.
That’s because the local fire chief partly blamed solar panels for the failure to contain the blaze. Four-alarm headlines followed: “Death Panels: Why Firefighters are Scared of Solar Rooftops.”
Matt Paiss, an 18-year veteran of the San Jose Fire Department in California, has made it his mission to make sure solar panels don’t become "death panels" for any firefighter. He trains firefighters around the country in solar safety and says many don’t understand how the technology works. Not that there aren’t dangers.
The panels can pose electrical shock and tripping hazards in certain cases, says Paiss. There’s also the question of the added weight they pose on a roof weakened by fire. With firefighters on the roof with all their tools and equipment, "we’re weakening the structure itself," says Paiss’ colleague, Captain Cleo Doss. "So then there’s the possibility of collapse."
Depending on their layout, solar panels can also prevent firefighters from doing a critical job when they arrive on the scene.
"One of the tactics that firefighters frequently perform when there’s a fire in the building is cutting a hole in the roof to let out the hottest gases and smoke," says Paiss. He says if a rooftop has too many panels, it can complicate or prevent a firefighter from cutting the proper ventilation holes in the roof. "There are some buildings that probably have more solar than they should."
Ken Johnson at the Solar Energy Industries Association says his group is working more closely with fire departments to make sure they don’t reflexively fear firefighting at solar-powered buildings.
"There are improvements that are going to be made in solar technology that will make it easier for firefighters to fight fires in the future," says Johnson. "but firefighters also need to have a basic understanding of how solar works."
In the meantime, there’s always negotiation.
Officials in Boulder, Colo., were all set to adopt the 2012 International Fire Code, one of several fire codes municipalities can choose to follow. When the state’s solar industry ran the numbers, it told city officials the stricter rules would cut its sales in half. They struck a compromise.