Author(s): James Shannon. Published on March 4, 2014.

WHEN AN 11-ALARM FIRE broke out at the Dietz & Watson distribution center in Delanco, New Jersey, last September, hundreds of firefighters from surrounding communities responded. But the 300,000-square-foot (27,871-square-meter) facility was completely destroyed, in part because the 7,000 photovoltaic panels on the roof kept the firefighters from doing their job. In media reports, the fire chief said he was concerned that firefighters risked electrocution if he allowed them on the roof. “With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that,” he was quoted as saying. A new section was added to the 2012 edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code, to address these operational concerns, but it’s unclear to what extent the provisions are being considered.
The chief’s dilemma illustrates a tension between fire safety and environmental concerns, and the issue of how we balance these crucial societal interests will only grow. Last year, for example, when California acted to remove flame retardants from upholstered furniture, the action was applauded by many who pointed to concerns that the chemicals in question might be harmful to health, particularly in children. The response from the fire protection community was somewhat muted, because even in that community there is skepticism as to how much fire protection is actually provided by applying these chemicals to furniture. There are people who argue that the next logical step should be wholesale removal of chemical retardants from all building materials.

It is appropriate to raise these kinds of environmental concerns, but it is also important that any possible degradation of fire safety be taken into account when policymakers consider their options. Organizations like NFPA and its affiliated Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) have an important role to play in this process because we are not partisans. Our safety mission is fulfilled when we find the technical solutions to problems. Several years ago we led an effort to find alternatives to halon when environmental concerns arose, and strategies were developed to address both environmental and fire protection concerns.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are another example. When the federal government decided to support EVs in a big way as part of the 2009 stimulus package, we were concerned that emergency responders could be endangered while responding to car crashes involving EVs. We did not just point out the dangers, and we did not discourage the use of the technology—rather, we helped provide a solution by offering training to emergency responders on how to respond safely to these incidents. With financial support from the Department of Energy and in close collaboration with automobile manufacturers, we created the training programs and have delivered them to thousands of emergency responders.

The FPRF has also provided important research on photovoltaics and lithium-ion batteries, work aimed at discovering the best technical solutions to advance the environmental improvements that society is trying to achieve while maintaining appropriate fire safety standards.

We do not have to choose between the environment and fire safety. We have an important stake in both. NFPA must continue to work collaboratively with both the fire protection and environmental communities to help advance new technological solutions to these problems.