In a recent webinar Mark Iannucci, founder of Emergency Management Consulting and Training, discussed concerns of first responders regarding battery backup systems. Here’s a recap of his presentation. You can watch the full webinar here.
Iannucci has been in the fire service for thirty-three years, and mused that what first responders must face at the scene of a fire may exceed their initial expectations. He elaborated that in the past, the fire department “put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” meaning they simply put water on the fire, secured the situation and then left.
In today’s increasingly technological world, it’s not as easy. As battalion chief in the city of Yonkers, New York, Iannucci answered 16,000 alarms a year including medical runs, structure fires, hazardous material incidents and more. When a situation involved battery backup storage, his standard operation procedure was interrupted because water and electrically-charged batteries don’t mix safely.
Residential backup systems
More people are working from home. This new development in the modern working environment changes the standard scenario for fire fighters. “During the daytime,” Iannucci explained, “you used to be able to expect people at work, children at school; more people being home at night than they are during the day. Now we have to plan and train for the possibility of people being home at any time doing anything.” People working from home are also more likely to own battery backups.
First responders are not always aware of the type of backup system a home has upon arrival, or if it has one at all. An outside generator is easier to spot, while a battery system is more difficult. “If a home is backed up through battery storage, responders have concerns coming into the building for a lot of obvious reasons, mostly due to electrical and chemical dangers,” Iannucci said.
Commercial backup systems
Commercial structures are often electrically connected to others, or are part of a busy neighborhood. Unable to shut down the power in these situations, firemen have to wait for a utility company to do so before they can extinguish the fire.
“The biggest problem in the fire service is searching and rescuing people at different times of the day and night,” Iannucci said. “Firefighters unaware of the building’s battery storage or other alternating backup system may electrocute themselves as they crawl through the smoke.” A “re-education” for the fire service and emergency response teams is needed to deal with these increasingly common electrical hazards, mainly including grid power and secondary supply systems.
Air conditioning on backup power
Ventilation systems present another danger to first responders. Since warm air rises, firemen often make holes in roofs to release toxic gases and smoke from the building. At that point, the electric power to the structure has been turned off. However, if the home or commercial building has a backup system, the ventilation HVAC system may restart itself. “This causes a major change in the incident commander’s plan of attack to fight the fire,” Iannucci explained.
If an HVAC system was to come back on, it would reignite any extinguished flames, which could spread. This happens because the system reintroduces oxygen to the fuel source, growing the fire exponentially. The rapid rekindling and redirection of the fire can maim, hurt or kill anybody inside.
HVAC systems on the roof propose additional problems, possibly compromising the roof structure. Iannucci again reiterated that emergency management must be re-educated to deal with these issues.
Proper warning labels
Labeling for structures that detail the presence of battery backup systems, solar PV systems and other potentially dangerous secondary supply systems would be helpful to first responders, Iannucci noted. Solar systems on roofs pose less of a problem because they are visible to responders, and alert them to a potential storage system inside. However, if the system is purely internal, labels describing the backup and its location externally would eliminate dangerous guesswork.
Labels would also be helpful with hazardous materials such as vapors and chemicals involved in manufacturing processes. In large warehouses with electrical backup generators, if the manufacturing process restarts after the electricity is disconnected, dangerous materials and chemicals may also have to be contained along with the fire.
Important considerations for all time
Despite the changing landscape of electrical power systems and chemicals, some things stay the same. “Smoke detectors are still proven,” Iannucci said. Firemen require every building to have them. “They are the easiest way to save lives.”