Green products: An emergency response challenge

Findings from two reports released in May by the Fire Protection Research Foundation of the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association show the need for more training and guidance for emergency medical responders and firefighters when responding to incidents involving alternative energy.

The first study focused on emergency incidents involving electric or hybrid electric motor vehicles, such as a roadway crash or a fire at a charging/docking station. The study highlighted three key differences between responding to an electric vehicle crash versus a conventional vehicle crash:

  • Electric shock hazard has a higher occurrence among electric vehicles.
  • Vehicle movement is more of a threat with electric vehicles: Electric vehicle engines are typically so quiet that first responders have no idea that they are still running.
  • Fire extinguishment of electric vehicle fires requires different tactical approaches.

These reports are part of a single overall study funded by a DHS/FEMA fire grant to examine emergency first responder best practices involving two alternative energy applications: electric and hybrid electric vehicles, and solar power systems.

The first report provides valuable baseline information for another much larger study funded by the Department of Energy that is examining electric vehicle response training and best practices. Casey Grant, program director of FPRF, said findings from the Department of Homeland Security/FEMA study showed the need for standardized methods and approaches for emergency response. He also said firefighters should be fully aware as they approach any vehicle.

“One of the things that has been difficult all along is keeping up with new vehicles,” Grant said. “We need a living process that can provide accurate, credible and reliable information we can incorporate into training materials. This will be addressed in the DOE project.” In addition, motor vehicle manufacturers should improve labeling for emergency responders, he said.

Grant is quick to note that improvements already have been made to in-vehicle communication systems that notify emergency responders of a crash. The technology can identify if the vehicle is upright or has rolled over, as well as provide guidance to dispatch call centers to the site of a crash through global positioning systems. In addition, progress is being made on technology to better identify what type of vehicle is involved in a crash, which would be valuable information for emergency responders when a crash involves an electric vehicle, Grant said.

The second study examined firefighting best practices in buildings and structures involving solar power systems. This includes solar panels that generate thermal or electrical energy, with a particular focus on solar photovoltaic panels. Solar panels have a number of benefits, including energy savings, and are a source of power even for fire service vehicles and systems. However, they also pose unexpected hazards for firefighters. One example is responding to structure fires involving PV panels on a sunny day. Shutting off a building’s electrical power during a fire is a key firefighting task, but during a sunny day PV panels remain powered and charged, Grant said. Other firefighting challenges include revising roof ventilation tactics, protecting battery storage components and avoiding tripping hazards. These issues, although not insurmountable, bring attention to the need for proper training to assist in firefighter response.

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