It’s Not Easy Being Green
A young fire protection engineer is divided by her passion for the environment and her commitment to fire safety.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
By Tracy Golinveaux
I think of myself as green and as someone who is truly passionate about protecting the environment. When I was growing up, I was taught the importance of preserving the environment by doing simple tasks like recycling and conserving water. I’m now in my early 20s, and I consider myself fortunate to be part of a generation that is so environmentally conscious.
But I’m also studying to become a fire protection engineer, and I can’t help being concerned with some of the fire hazards presented by green practices and materials. I understand the excitement that comes with green technologies such as wind turbines or solar panels, but I fear that people may be getting swept up in the green whirlwind at the expense of safety.
Take automobile advertising, for example. Car commercials that once boasted of vehicles’ safety ratings now tout miles-per-gallon and reduced emissions. Saving the planet and a few bucks are great incentives for the green industry, but safety needs to remain a top priority, as well. The fire protection industry has a lot of catching up to do with the green industry. I’ve noticed discussions and articles over the last year or so that address this dilemma. I’m happy that the issue is starting to get the attention it deserves, but more definitely needs to be done.
One of my first memories of being part of the green movement took place in elementary school, when I participated in a poster design competition to help raise awareness for Earth Day. I spent days carefully coloring in each of my precisely drawn, perfectly spaced block letters. I showed off my artwork in class, sure that I would win, but I was disqualified before the teacher could even send my poster to the judges. The problem was a misspelling: ENVIORNMENT. At that moment, I should have learned that I was meant to be an engineer, but it took me a few more years to figure out where I was headed.
I graduated last May with a degree in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. I chose to study civil engineering only after determining that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in fire protection engineering. I knew I wanted to work in a field that would help improve building fire safety. Understanding how to build buildings, I thought, was an obvious step towards learning how to protect them. Most of my studies revolved around structural engineering, but I also found myself learning about all things green through class discussions of topics such as LEED certification and through other coursework and WPI projects I participated in.
I was lucky to have worked the past two summers as an intern for NFPA. I was introduced to many of the problems relating to green technologies through researching fires, working with the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), and from talking with people in the fire service. NFPA and the FPRF have been putting together meetings and committees to review the fire problems in the green industry, and I think it’s a significant first step towards finding solutions.
As a civil engineer, one of my first concerns in fire safety involves building materials. I can appreciate the need for engineered lumber as a green alternative to traditional wood members, for example, but I’m also troubled by how some of those new materials react to fire. A recent issue of NFPA Journal, for example, featured a great cover story on the hazards of engineered lumber [“Light Weight, Heavy Concern,” July/August]. Gluing together recycled wood products to create engineered lumber may reduce the raw materials necessary for construction, but is it worth having a product that burns, and fails, faster during a fire?
It’s been interesting, as a fire protection engineering student, to hear the discussion over lightweight engineered building materials. Recognizing the danger posed by this type of construction, the town of Derby, Connecticut, recently passed a new ordinance requiring that reflective stickers be placed on the exterior of all new buildings constructed with engineered lumber. The stickers warn firefighters of a building’s construction before they enter it, the rationale being that knowing how a building is put together, and with what materials, could potentially save their lives.
A similar warning system is being used in New York for truss construction. The New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration requires all commercial and industrial buildings to display a sign warning firefighters if the building is made with truss construction. I think stickers and signs are great quick-fix solutions, but with the large number of truss and engineered-wood buildings being built today, I also believe more than just a sign is needed to protect firefighters and the people who live and work in those buildings. Many other alternatives have been studied to reduce the risk associated with these materials, including using gypsum to cover engineered materials, and installing sprinklers. My hope is that we continue to explore new ways to reduce the fire hazard of these building materials.
Another green technology that concerns me is photovoltaic (PV) panels, commonly known as solar panels. I learned a lot about these panels through my projects at WPI, where the curriculum focuses on project-based learning. For one project, I spent seven weeks in Boston studying the feasibility of installing solar panels on 10 city-owned buildings. I then spent three terms designing a green residential structure, which included a PV panel installation. My environmentally conscious side wants me to encourage the use of these panels, since they reduce energy usage, but my fire protection side won’t let me. One issue with PV is that it cannot be entirely shut off. PV panels create electric current from the sun’s energy that flows through wires connected to inverters and disconnect boxes designed for safety. The power from the disconnect box to the building can easily be shut off, but the power from the solar panel to the box cannot be shut off at all. When the sun is out, the panels can continuously procure electrical current. Firefighters need to be aware of the live electrical current that might be present when navigating roofs with PV arrays.
Firefighters have already encountered difficulties with PV arrays in California. In April, a large PV array was involved in a rooftop fire at a Target store. Firefighters arrived on scene to find an entire row of nine panels engulfed in flames. Extinguishing the fire, which was carefully done, could have been fatal because of the live electrical current produced by the panels, carried through the conduit, and stored in the inverter. To make the situation worse, the fire service was unable to safely disconnect the solar panel system. An electrical contractor had to be called to the scene to disconnect each of the 56 fuses inside the combiner box. With this event in mind, I hope that fire protection engineers, firefighters, and PV array manufacturers will all consider the dangers involved with these panels and devise new ways to prevent them.
Another hot-ticket item in the green market is fuel-efficient cars that use alternative fuels or hybrid engines. They are a great way to save money and reduce emissions. However, cars powered by alternative fuels or hybrid engines create new fire problems of their own. For starters, firefighters cannot easily distinguish what type of fuel or battery they will encounter under the hood of a burning car. High-hazard batteries and fuels could become dangerous to firefighters without the proper training. If firefighters aren’t familiar with hybrid vehicles, they may even have difficulty knowing if one is running, since some are so quiet; I know someone who was almost run over by a hybrid that they didn’t hear coming.
Firefighters need proper training in this area. This summer, I was excited to hear about a great opportunity for the fire protection industry to initiate this kind of training. Through a joint effort with other fire-related organizations, NFPA was recently awarded a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to “develop and implement a comprehensive awareness and emergency response training program for the 1.2 million members of the fire service to prepare them for their role in the safety infrastructure for widespread implementation of advanced electric drive vehicles.” I feel that this initiative couldn’t have come at a better time, since these cars are becoming so popular.
It has occurred to me that, over the 18 years I’ve been in school, my teachers weren’t really teaching me how to memorize things such as differential equations so I could pass a test. They were teaching me how to solve problems and how to learn. I think the best thing I’m doing right now as a student is learning about fire hazards and identifying problems. I hope to someday work with a company that is also interested in studying these green-related problems and coming up with solutions to those problems. I remain convinced that participating in the green movement will absolutely help sustain our environment—yes, I eventually learned how to spell the word correctly—and I try to use my green sense every day. I’m equally convinced that it is critical that all green practices and technologies are properly addressed for safety.
I hope that my generation of fire protection engineers will be well-versed in the growing number of green alternatives and realize that with new technologies come new hazards. Until solutions are found, learning about those hazards and raising awareness of them are great goals for both me and the fire protection industry.
Tracy Golinveau is a student in the master’s program in Fire Protection Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.