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Belleville Fire Department not trained on solar panel safety

By Ashliegh Gehl


BELLEVILLE, On. (05/26/11) Premier Dalton McGuinty's Green Energy Act encourages Ontarians to invest in solar energy. The switch from farm to suburb is a potential hazard for fire fighters who aren't trained to deal with solar panel technology. Photo by Ashliegh Gehl

Local firefighters are not prepared for the urbanization of solar panels.

That’s the message Brent Harris of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Technologies is sending to firefighters across Ontario.

Harris met with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs two weeks ago to discuss the risks solar panels on homes, apartment buildings and businesses present to firefighters.

Since the urbanization of solar panels is a relatively new phenomenon, Belleville’s firefighters are not trained to handle them.

“When they see something they don’t recognize they want to understand the risk,” said Harris. “They face risk every day in their job. The only kind of risk they don’t like is an unknown risk.”

Belleville’s fire training officer, Carson Cross, says training for this type of emergency incident is under development and won’t be implemented until the fall. Belleville’s fire department will also be receiving alternative energy source hazard training for wind turbines.

Cross has been on the job for 20 years and hasn’t had many run-ins with the green technology.

“I have only ever had one incident that involved the use of them,” said Cross. “It neither caused the fire nor interfered any differently than any other residential construction features.”

This doesn’t mean Cross isn’t concerned about them.

“As a firefighter, I would be concerned on the energy storage areas, such as battery locations and sizes and if there were roof panels installed on a structure,” said Cross. “I would be very aware of the extra load they would impose during fire conditions and the problems we would have in conducting successful roof ventilation.”

Suzanne Cyr, co-owner of SolPowered Energy Corp, says her firm has recognized 10 main hazards for firefighters. The company is now training Ontario firefighters in solar panel safety and giving its first training session outside of Ottawa.

“When firefighters get on to a roof, some of them may not even know there’s solar on a roof. Ho do they handle that? What about the weight?” said Cyr. “The weight is not a problem because they’ve been approved by a structural engineer prior to installation. But it is a problem if you’ve got 10 fire fighters all at the same spot on a building.”

The hazards go beyond extra weight on a roof, says Cyr.

“Can we touch them with our hands. No, you cannot. Can we breathe this? No you shouldn’t. It goes on and on.”

The move toward more solar energy started to take shape when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty introduced the Green Energy Act, encouraging Ontarians to bring energy saving technologies into the home.

Over the last 15 years solar panels have made the migration from farm field to suburb. As a result, the evolution of this green technology is a hazard for untrained firefighters and the people who operate them.

“Once it [solar panels] gets on commercial buildings it’s a totally different ball park than just seeing them in a field,” said Cyr. “Firefighters are saying there’s safety involved here and there’s lives involved if you don’t know how to handle this situation.”

On top of solar panel safety, Belleville’s fire department will also be receiving alternative energy source hazard training for wind turbines.