Photo by Andrew Hoet
I love electricity for what it is and the many uses it has. I also believe we take it for granted, we flip a switch and it makes all sorts of things happen, without it we would all be miserable. I wouldn't be sitting here; typing away on my computer writing this if I didn't love it as much as you.
I always thought electricity came from a source, somewhere safe, and out of harm’s way. Lately, this troubles me.
Generally, when the fire department responds to an electrical hazard, like power lines down in the road, arcing or an electrical short in the home, we can easily control the situation by shutting the circuit panel down or have the power company diffuse the high voltage situation.
The times are changing. With new technology, some of us now make our own electricity from our rooftops. Today, as I ride down the street, I notice photovoltaic systems are popping up everywhere. I believe this to be a good thing. Farm the sun for our benefit, go green, and save money, I get it.
What is a photovoltaic system (aka PV system) you ask? It’s basically what we know as solar panels, the one that create solar energy. Wikipedia says, “It’s arrangement of components designed to supply usable electric power for a variety of purposes, using the Sun (or, less commonly, other light sources) as the power source.”
Graphic by Earth, Wind & Solar Systems LLC
My concern and newfound hate is the installation of these systems on rooftops of homes and businesses. They have created a new hazard and a safety issue for firefighters. Firefighter safety is, ultimately, my responsibility. With structures having these types of systems installed, I can no longer have the utilities secured during fire ground operations, creating a safe environment.
In my mind the decision is easy when choosing between the fire and firefighter safety. I have no problem ordering a defensive operation on a home or business if there are safety issues present that can’t be mitigated.
There are numerous issues with these types of systems. During an emergency, the priority is the inability to shut it down or turn it off completely. The photovoltaic system can only be partially de-energized. The array and the line to the inverter switch are always energized creating electricity. If the array is illuminated it could produce enough electricity to shock and kill. Artificial lighting also creates enough light to energize these arrays. These rooftop systems also limit firefighter access to function during essential firefighting operations.
I love the thought of people making personal electricity, but hate the fact it creates a new firefighting hazard. I will hate this even more if a firefighter is injured while operating around one of these energized systems. Does the good really outweigh the bad?
Until they find any way to make the photovoltaic array safe, I urge my brothers and sisters when making your 360 size-up to always double check the roof, through the smoke, and dark of night, for signs of these systems. Please take extra steps to be safe; it could save your life and the lives of others.
I really think someone missed the ball here and I hope we don't pay the price.
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Chief Hannum began his career with the Whately Fire Department Muster Team. He travelled across the northeast and competed in many events. The team was very successful and took countless wins. In 1973 he enlisted in the United States Air Force as a Fire Protection Specialist. His training and experience propelled him into the civilian fire service. In 1978 he became an EMT, an Intermediate in 1986, and an EMT/Paramedic in 1994, and is a practicing medic presently. Furthering his career in 1982, he worked for the Amherst Fire Department and received his training from the Massachusetts and National Fire Academies. He has also served as the president of the Firefighters Local 1764 for 5 years. John was appointed Fire Chief of Whately Massachusetts in 2003 where he still is today.