The Hazards of Electricity

While this column was being written, the pagers beeped and the e-mail opened up with a notification of a fire captain in Los Angeles suffering a severe electrical shock. As in most "close calls" that we report, and you read about, I am sure we all...


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On his initial size-up, Chief 5-10 saw the wire and specifically had Engine 5-10-2 stop just west of the fire building to avoid positioning or working under the wires. The firefighter who had the wires fall on him also recalled seeing the wires and the fire burning at the service entrance area.

Lessons learned:

  • Size-up. Size-up is not just the responsibility of the first-in officer or the person riding the officer seat on the first in piece; it is everyone's responsibility to do a personal size-up.

We learned some valuable lessons and continue to pick apart the events of that day and learn from it. Some positive events played out that day as well:

  • The firefighter's partner reacted exactly as he should have by not rushing into a potentially lethal situation and going from rescuer to victim. His training paid off.

We had a similar incident happen about 2 years ago in another part of Lancaster County. A triplex fell and draped over a firefighter making entry into a dwelling fire. The end of the wire fell away from the firefighter in that case and caused no injury. Dramatic photos of the event by Chief Glenn Usdin appeared on Firehouse.com in 2003.

Pennsylvania Power and Light Company (PPL), the local electrical utility company, had a safety representative in our firehouse within four hours of the incident to begin an investigation into what happened. The representative interviewed the firefighter the wires fell on as well as the chief. PPL is conducting an internal investigation of the incident to learn what may have happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent future events like this.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writer and others regarding this incident:

Electrical wires have been a known problem to firefighters for years. Firefighters have even been operating near wires without physical contact and received serious shocks. Last year, a firefighter in Pennsylvania was seriously injured when on a damp and humid evening he was operating on a ground ladder and the power arced between the ladder and him, causing a shock.

Chief Devonshire's comments and lessons learned are applicable to all of us. Of special note, though, is the preparedness of their fire company. On the scene were the resources to help solve the problem. EMS was there. Even today, so many fire departments call for EMS only when they need it. It's needed anytime we "go to work" at an incident. If a sports team can have a sports medicine athletic trainer, a doctor and EMS standing by during a game, why can't we at least have EMS on working scenes? No excuses. EMS should be automatically when firefighters are being placed at risk. It is hardly a waste of resources.

The fire company also shows excellent foresight with its "heavy" first- and second-alarm assignments. Sure, lots of resources are committed, but they are clearly needed. They have been able to match the situation and the resources. As soon as the resources are determined to not be needed, send them home. But it sure makes sense to have the "infantry" responding to what is sure to be a tough battle based upon pre-plans and initial reports.

Specifically related to electrical line and wire problems at the scene of an emergency, here are some suggestions from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and commentary based on several firefighter deaths by electrocution:

  • Keep firefighters a minimum distance from a downed power line until the line is de-energized. This minimum distance should equal the span between two poles. Officers and firefighters both have this responsibility. As noted above, everyone sizes up, and keeps sizing-up. While the incident commander sizes-up the incident, all persons operating must also do (and keep doing) their own size-ups as well and report relevant information to superiors.

In the last year or so, we have been sent several photographs of firefighters placing themselves in harm's way for no valid reason. In one case, a firefighter is shown standing on the top of an apparatus using wire cutters to cut a high-voltage wire, due to long estimated time of arrival (ETA) by the power company as well as multiple other calls pending. Firefighters should not be in the business of cutting power wires, and officers should not allow it.