FOX 29 Investigates: Solar Panel Dangers - FOX 35 News Orlando

FOX 29 Investigates: Solar Panel Dangers

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DELANCO, N.J. -

FOX 29 Investigates has found that top state fire officials in New Jersey are so concerned about the potential danger that solar panels represent to firefighters they're putting wide-ranging safety measures in place.

But we want to know what other states are doing especially in the wake of the massive Dietz & Watson warehouse fire last year.

FOX 29 Investigates has learned federal investigators probing September's massive warehouse fire in Delanco, N.J., have pinpointed an outside section of the roof where the blaze started.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators, who found the fire was not set, released their findings informally to local and state fire officials over two weeks ago and are now seeking comments.

While the ATF believes it knows where the fire started, its report does not list a cause, FOX 29 Investigates has learned.

"It can be life and death more so for the firefighter than anyone," Acting NJ Fire Marshal William Kramer said.

"Right, because they've got to go in the building," Cole said.

"They not only have to go into the building but if they don't know that the solar is there, if they don't understand the dangers of the solar, it only takes one mistake and that could be detrimental to a firefighter," Kramer said.

Meanwhile, the expanse of solar panels, known as an array, on top of the Dietz & Watson warehouse at the time of the blaze – and on many other buildings across New Jersey – are a cause for concern by fire officials.

Kramer noted that "New Jersey is the second-largest user of solar energy behind California."

Solar boomed in New Jersey under a state incentive program. Now, arrays can be seen glistening from the tops of buildings across the state.

Kramer says solar panels stretched from one end of the roof to the other on large warehouses can mean big problems for firefighters. They trap super-heated gases inside burning buildings.

"So, you've got to open a hole in the roof of a building that's burning so the hot gases to come up?" Cole asked.

"That's correct," Kramer answered. "And that allows the engine companies to stretch their hose lines in at the lower level to find the seat of the fire."

"And the problem is how are you going to do that if you have solar panels everywhere?" Cole asked.

"That's one of the challenges," Kramer said.

And there are other challenges.

As long as light is hitting them, solar panels are nearly always charged with electricity – a potential disaster if unaware firefighters douse them with water.

Cole asked, "There's no way to shut it down?

"No," Kramer said.

"It's always going to be alive?" Cole asked.

"That's correct," Kramer said.

"So, what do you do about it?" Cole inquired.

"You have to know that it's there," Kramer answered.

That's why New Jersey has a new law mandating local fire departments be alerted when a permit is pulled for solar panels.

And buildings with solar arrays must be marked with a sign warning fire crews of electrically-juiced solar panels on the roof.

New Jersey's law is in its infancy, but it marks a growing concern on the part of fire officials about the potential danger that solar panels represent to firefighters especially if those firefighters don't know the panels are on a roof.

We wanted to know if Pennsylvania and Delaware are trying to tackle the same concerns. But FOX 29 Investigates finds there are no similar laws in either state.

In Delaware, a senior trainer with the state fire school says it's up to firefighters to do a "360 of burning buildings" to make sure there are no active solar panels.

And he urges local fire marshals to be aware of solar arrays in their communities.

Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann – whose office could not find a time for FOX 29 Investigates to interview him on camera – says there is no statewide listing of buildings with large solar arrays. Nor is there a requirement of signs on buildings or that local fire marshals be alerted when solar panels are to be erected.

Mann did say there was training offered on the fire commission's website for firefighters. And while we did find a dense, multi-page research project on solar panels there, when we clicked on an online training program it came up "page not found."

Mann also urges local fire marshals to know where the solar panels are in their communities.

In the meantime, the devastating Dietz and Watson fire seems to weigh heavily on fire officials working to keep fire crews safe.

"For firefighters, when it comes to solar panels on roofs, knowledge is both power and a way to save lives?" Cole asked.

"It's power, it's a way to save lives and it's a way to protect themselves," Kramer said.

On the phone, a spokesperson for a solar industry trade group said, "We take safety very seriously and we're working diligently to better educate firefighters about how solar works so they can be more effective fighting fires in the future."

The spokesperson added that since 1996 there have been a "handful" of fires related to solar panels.

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