Battery energy storage and solar systems are revolutionizing the nation’s electrical infrastructure and creating a strong commercial and consumer interest, with the number of residential battery energy storage system (ESS) installs during the first quarter of 2018 increasing nine-fold over 2017 Q1 figures, according to PV Magazine. That number equaled totals from the previous three quarters.

This means that first responders may well encounter emergency calls involving ESS or photovoltaics (PV).

Updated training for the fire service

To address potential fire and life safety hazards that may occur with solar and ESS technology in both housing and business settings, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has updated and expanded its Energy Storage and Solar Safety Training for the fire service, with funding from FEMA.

FEMA funded NFPA’s efforts in 2015 to develop the world’s first ESS training program for first responders. In 2017, NFPA received another FEMA grant to update and expand its program to include solar safety and the latest in energy storage research findings.

Safe handling, potential hazards

NFPA’s enhanced ESS classroom training covers terminology, basic electrical theory, types of PV installations, battery chemistries (lead acid, lithium-ion, sodium sulfur, and flow batteries), as well as common applications they will be found in. The 4-hour course provides detailed guidance on handling failure modes and potential hazards associated with these technologies, including pre-incident planning, systems shutdown, battery thermal runaway and re-ignition, ventilation, and other emergency response procedures via an instructor-led classroom curriculum. FEMA funding has also been earmarked to enhance NFPA’s self-paced online training with interactive 3D modeling, videos and quick reference materials by the beginning of 2019.

“We are increasingly seeing more high power battery energy storage systems comprised of hundreds or even thousands of smaller battery cells in our communities. These units connect together to create a much larger power supply capability, and are cropping up in large outdoor shipping containers, inside commercial buildings, at multi-family dwellings, and in residential homes,” NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley said. “Our first responders and enforcers need to know about hazards including electrical shock, batteries exploding or reigniting, HAZMAT issues, and flammable toxic off-gassing so that they can keep themselves and others from harm.”

NFPA has been addressing ESS and solar issues for a number of years, in particular how emergency responders should respond if there’s a fire involving these green technologies. The development of NFPA 855, the proposed Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems, is currently underway. Slated to be released in 2020, NFPA 855 will create more stringent ESS requirements nationally, and will work alongside the new NEC Article 706. The Technical Committee for NFPA 855 received nearly 600 public inputs last fall and recently received more than 800 public comments, underscoring the exceptionally high interest in energy capture, distribution and storage. 

As part of the effort to update NFPA’s ESS classroom training curriculum, NFPA hosted 50 attendees from across a spectrum of industries for a one-day intensive summit in Denver in February. First responders, authorities having jurisdiction, inspectors, facility managers, designers, manufacturers, and others weighed in on some of the potentially fraught aspects of ESS including the initial steps first responders should take at an ESS incident; what procedures should be followed; what should be included in pre-planning; what training gaps exist; and determining when it is safe to hand the fire scene back to the building owner. Proceedings and information from the workshop were gathered into a report.

First responders feel unprepared

During that workshop, one theme was abundantly clear, much more needs to be done to prepare first responders for hazards associated with ESS and solar energy. An impromptu poll toward the end of the day, indicated that on a scale from 0 to 100 percent, attendees had between a 25 and 50 percent comfort level with regulating and responding to ESS emergencies inside a building. NFPA’s updated and expanded ESS classroom training was designed so that fire service training officers who have participated in a course can host training for first responders, AHJs and others; and address the knowledge gap surrounding alternative energy technology concerns. Contact NFPA for more details.