When installing his solar electric system, Captain Mathew Paiss of the San Jose (CA) Fire Department, looked at it with the eyes of a truck company member, and knew immediately there would be a lot of questions from the fire service about how to stay safe when around them. At “Solar Electric Safety for Firefighters,” Paiss said he know that there would be many more of these systems installed in our communities, and that the fire service should approach it from a position of knowledge.

Firefighters must be aware of the presence of solar electric photovoltaic (PV) systems on a roof; one solar array covering 90 percent of the southern slope of a roof could dramatically affect roof operation tactics. The United States has made a serious commitment to this technology; as with any new building technology, firefighters must educate themselves about it, so that they can stay safe while helping others. Paiss said that the fact that the last line of duty death (LODD) in his county was the result of an electrocution, made this personally important to him.

To demystify solar electric technology, Paiss designed the class for the firefighter who has only a basic electrical safety level of training, putting this information into an easy-to-understand format, providing the technology’s most current innovations and materials. Students learned the principles of generating solar electricity, how to safely fight fires in structures equipped with PV systems, and how to train for operations involving these systems. The class also took a current look at the real hazards and the tools to identify all the PV system components. Students should feel confident in approaching a PV-equipped structure, and say, “Yes, this has a PV system. Here is the inverter, here are disconnects, and this is what NOT to touch.”

Knowing about the today’s new technologies not only helps us stay safe, it helps new technology develop. “We have some contribution to industry, and when we are included at the table, we can intelligently offer our support and be more effective when seconds count. Knowledge is power,” he said.

Matthew Paiss is a 14-year veteran of the fire service, wrote “Solar Electric Systems and Firefighter Safety,” which appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fire Engineering.

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