Monthly Drill: Residential Solar Firefighter Safety
By Lieutenant Scot Best
May 17, 2022

Ridge VFD firefighters gathered last evening for our monthly training drill. This month we learned about maintaining firefighter safety while mitigating an incident involving homes with solar panels and energy storage systems. Gage Murdock from Energy Select came to the firehouse to present on the topic. Basic firefighter strategies and tactics needed during a residential structure fire have changed with the installation of solar panels and energy storage systems in homes across the United States. On a residential structure fire where an aggressive interior fire attack is needed, one of the first priorities for command is to control utilities. This critical task needs to be accomplished so that the firefighters inside the structure can safely complete a primary search, locate and extinguish the fire, and contain it to the room of origin. The introduction of alternate energy systems has changed where power flows and how it is made safe.

Firefighter safety topics discussed by Mr. Murdock included:

1) Complete a 360-walkaround: The first arriving unit/officer should complete a 360-walkaround of the home to locate any solar panels and/or energy storage systems. Some systems can be located outside, in a garage or basement.

2) Turn off all systems: Electricity to the home is only isolated once the main breaker from the grid utility and the DC/AC disconnect from the solar and storage have been turned off. Turning off only the main utility breaker will activate the backup battery to the home, so it is imperative to turn off all the systems to eliminate the possibility of the interior firefighters receiving an electric shock. After turning off the solar/storage system, it can take up to five minutes for the system to discharge. Grid utility electricity coming from the power company to the house has not changed and the firefighters need to recognize this.

3) Ventilation tactics: Roof access may be limited by solar panels of any type. Firefighters need to be aware of two important facts; (1) electricity can be produced by the solar panels day or night depending on the light source (environmental, scene lights, spotlights, etc.). With the ability of solar panels to produce electricity day or night, firefighters should not cut, damage, or touch any part of the system. (2) if the conduit is hidden (for aesthetic reasons), a firefighter cutting a hole in a roof unaware of the conduit’s location could easily be exposed to an electrical shock. They should not touch the panels or conduit, and only vertically ventilate if they can locate a stable part of the roof that is clear of the solar panels and conduit. If a roof has multiple solar panels covering the majority of it, command should consider using horizontal ventilation.

4) Fire attack from a distance: If the solar panels on the roof are burning, firefighters need to know that the back of the panels are made of combustible material. According to tests, firefighters can safely fight the fire using a straight stream from a minimum of 20 feet away or use a fog pattern from 5 feet away.

We’d like to thank Mr. Murdock for taking the time to educate our members. Safety is our #1 priority!