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Solar panels present new challenges for firefighters

As solar panels and other renewable sources of energy grow in popularity, so to do the risks for firefighters and other emergency personnel who are responding to a fire. In an effort to increase safety for all its 143 volunteer firefighters, Woolwich Township has been conducting training on the dangers associated with a fire at a structure that has solar panels or other renewable energy project nearby. โ€œWe want to make sure that they know the systems, the panels, the inverters, the disconnects, the racking and the storage,โ€ said Woolwich fire chief Rick Pedersen. โ€œWeโ€™re trying to teach them how the grid is tied back to the batteries and the potential for electrocution or the roofs collapsing on them.โ€

Not only do solar panel systems change the dynamics of firefighting because of added weight to roofs, there is also the presence of toxic gases like cyanide as the panels smolder and burn, not to mention the ever-present danger of electrical shock.

Despite there being a main disconnect switch on all residential solar systems, the panels themselves remain a source of danger โ€“ even at night. โ€œWe canโ€™t just disconnect them,โ€ said Pedersen. โ€œAt one of our sessions we talked about them being shut down at night, but the lights from our truck could activate the solar panels, theyโ€™re that sensitive.โ€ There is also the danger of backup storage batteries and generators posing an extra element of risk for systems that are not a part of the main grid, such as on Mennonite farms. The number of renewable energy projects in the region grows by about 30 per cent each year, added Pedersen.

The training sessions started on Feb. 13 and are being conducted by a pair of volunteer firefighters from the Conestogo station. Jason Martin is a farmer who has a solar array on his farm, and earlier this year he travelled to the Emergency Services Training Centre in Blyth to receive more training.

Jason Grieb, the other member involved, is a business partner at Earth FX Energy in Maryhill that specializes in geothermal energy and solar panel installations. โ€œWe were fortunate to have a couple guys who have a background in this. Theyโ€™ve done an excellent job,โ€ said Pedersen. The Wellesley Fire Department has already conducted similar training with their volunteers, and chief Andrew Lillico said they sent a volunteer of their own to Blyth in the fall, with training sessions conducted during the winter months at each Wellesley station.

While both chiefs say they havenโ€™t yet had to fight a fire that involved a solar panel system, they say that it is important to conduct this training and be aware of the ever-evolving dangers facing them in their line of work.
โ€œThe potential is definitely there, certainly weโ€™re seeing more and more of this technology in our community,โ€ said Lillico.

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