Solar installations are heating up in Illinois due to robust state incentives that reimburse homeowners and businesses for costs. Unfortunately, hazards for fire fighters are also on the rise.
Addressing this circumstance is IBEW 134, one of the nation’s largest IBEW local unions with 13,000 members in the Chicago area. Experienced in solar installations, Local 134 aims to train and educate labor partners in addition to apprentices and journeymen.
“Burning panels may produce hazardous substances, but most firefighters can handle these with standard gear,” said Bob Hattier, IBEW 134 business representative and master trainer for the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund. “Electrocution is by far the biggest danger. It’s hard to stop an array from generating power. Even lights from fire equipment can energize it. The only way to truly shut it off is to remove all light sources. Also, backup batteries continue to power lights and appliances even when utility power is shut down”
Alsip Fire Department, which serves the community where IBEW 134’s apprenticeship school is located, inspired Hattier to develop first responder training.
“They started seeing more requests for solar installations and contacted us,” Hattier said. “It made me realize, we’re always thinking of the electrical inspectors who work with permitting authorities to prevent problems, but what about the first responder’s safety?”
So far, about a dozen Chicago suburban fire departments have received training.
“All 60 of our firefighters went through the training in three shifts,” said Berwyn Fire Department Captain Joseph P. Lotito. “Now we can tell by just looking at a house if there are going to be problems. Are the panels set back properly—three feet from the roofline and sides of the building? If we don’t see that, a lot of other things may be wrong.”
Those other wrong things can include conduit placed too near the rafters, which increases risk of electrocution when fire fighters pierce roofs for ventilation; lack of roof support, which increases risk of collapse; and lack of hazard labeling for solar conduit leading to inverters and batteries.
“This training definitely adds to safety,” said Robert Morris, executive director of the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association. “Fire inspectors work to prevent problems at the installation stage, so it definitely helps knowing what to look for in building plans.”
In March, Hattier will train inspectors from 100 or so Illinois municipalities at the association’s Fire & Life Safety Conference.
“We don’t charge for the training,” Hattier said. “This is a workforce development program. It’s designed to bring allied professionals up to speed on current technologies and to encourage municipalities to adopt the most recent codes to ensure public safety.”