The Hazards of Electricity

Dec. 1, 2005

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 think, "There but for the grace of God go I." After all, how many close calls or firefighter deaths have you read about where you or someone you know experienced the same situation, only they were lucky, or not so lucky, as the case may be. It happens to me all the time.

The 52-year-old California fire captain was injured by a high-voltage power line and was in cardiac arrest. The 28-year firefighting veteran suffered the severe electrical shock that night while he was investigating smoke near the top of a five-story building. He was shocked unconscious when his ladder touched a power line. Firefighters found him not breathing and with no pulse, slumped over his ladder. He was injured on both hands where the power entered and left his body. Thanks to the quick response of his fellow firefighters, he was last listed in stable condition at a burn center, where he had surgery for the burns to his hands. Just a few days later, he was awake, alert and talking. We wish him a quick recovery. Separately, another West Coast fire officer was killed earlier this year when he came in contact with a live wire at the scene of a dwelling fire.

The hazards of electricity are nothing new. Electricity is dangerous, and it can kill or injure firefighters. This month, Deputy Chief Robert R. Devonshire Jr. of Strasburg Volunteer Fire Company 1 (Station 5-10) in Lancaster County, PA, describes a close call that involves electricity. Our sincere thanks to Deputy Chief Devonshire, Chief Rick Wentz, the members of Strasburg Volunteer Fire Company 1, the Lampeter (5-4), Ronks (4-8), Bird-In-Hand (4-1), Paradise-Leaman Place (4-7) fire companies and Lancaster County EMSA (6-12). The second alarm brought two additional engine companies, a truck, a rescue, an air unit and eight tankers from other companies. (Even though most of the response area does not have hydrants, this call occurred in the hydranted area, so why eight tankers? Because the tankers can supply more water than the municipal water system can. The area's well-coordinated area tanker task force can deliver 2,000 gpm almost anywhere, while the municipal water system can deliver only 1,200 gpm. Do the math. They want enough water to put fires out. They did the math before the fire. Good basic customer service.)

Strasburg Fire Company 1 is an all-volunteer unit whose 40 members provide fire and rescue services to all of Strasburg Borough as well as portions of Strasburg, Eden and Paradise townships. Annually, they respond to about 150 emergency calls. All fire services in Lancaster County are provided by volunteer firefighters with the exception of Lancaster City, which has a fully career fire department that is an active participant in the countywide fire mutual aid response and dispatch system.

At 4:59 P.M. on Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, Strasburg Volunteer Fire Company 1 and others as a part of the first alarm were dispatched to a reported building fire at 49 East Main St. in Strasburg Borough. The initial dispatch alerted Engines 5-10-1, 5-10-2, 5-4-1, 5-4-2 and 4-8-2 along with Tankers 5-10 and 4-1 and EMS units Medic 6-12-10 and QRS (Quick Response Service, a non-transport EMS response unit) 6-12. On the initial dispatch, units were directed by the Lancaster County Communications Center to switch to a different frequency, one that they do not usually use, due to an ongoing incident on the primary frequency.

This account is provided by Deputy Chief Robert R. Devonshire Jr.:

When I responded (Deputy 5-10), I was told by communications that the caller reported a shed on fire. The second caller stated the fire was extending to a neighboring garage. The caller said the garage had an apartment unit above it and that all occupants where out of the building. Chief 5-10 (Chief of Department Rick Wentz) went on location about a minute after the dispatch, confirmed a working fire and requested Rescue 4-8 for a rapid intervention team assignment.

Chief 5-10's initial size-up found a two-car garage with an apartment above had fire on side 2 and that the sheds on the adjoining property were fully involved. The sheds and the garage/apartment were separated by about eight feet. The fire on the garage/apartment was extending up side 2 and entering the cockloft through the eaves.

Chief 5-10 gave Engine 5-10-2 the initial assignment to lay a supply line from the hydrant at Shenk Avenue; this was actually two hydrants prior to the scene, but happens to be the best hydrant in the borough because it has a 12-inch main. Unfortunately, the order was not received because Engine 5-10-2 had not changed frequencies. This caused confusion as to where Engine 5-10-2 was to position. Engine 5-10-2 then took a defensive parking position just west of the fire building and advanced a 2.5-inch and a 1.5-inch attack line to sides 2 and 3 of the garage/apartment.

Our SOPs call for the first-due engine to lay a supply line from the closest hydrant to the fire. The next-due piece is to pick up the hydrant and supply the line. Chief 5-10 was concerned that if the fire broke through the roof of the garage/apartment, the proximity of a house to the garage/apartment presented a large exposure problem on side 4. This was his reasoning for requesting the alternate hydrant. Interestingly, in their non-hydranted areas, they lay out as well with the knowledge that the tanker task force is on the way and will supply the water.

I arrived on scene and assumed "command 5-10" and requested Chief 5-10 to take operations as he was in the best position to do that at the time. Tanker 5-10 arrived directly behind me. I recognized that the line was not laid as Chief 5-10 had requested, so I ordered Tanker 5-10 to advance and supply Engine 5-10-2.

Engine 5-10-1 arrived on scene and was assigned to lay the supply line. Engine 4-8-2 arrived shortly thereafter, finished the lay and picked up the hydrant. Operations had requested two additional engines from Station 4-7 to enter the scene from the east end of the borough. About eight minutes after the dispatch, I asked communications to upgrade the assignment to a second alarm. The second alarm added eight tankers, two engines, a truck, a rescue and an air unit. Our second alarm serves two purposes. It brings a tanker task force that gives us a total of 10 tankers and two additional engines for draft-site engines. It also adds a truck, rescue and air unit to the call. While our borough has a municipal water supply and hydrants, we use the tankers to establish our second water supply from a pond on the west end of the borough.

It was at about nine minutes into the call that Chief 5-10 called: "Command from Operations Chief 5-10, get me a medic for an electrocution." I immediately contacted communications with a "priority message" and requested a medic for an electrocution. Our county uses the term "priority message" to alert everyone to stop all radio traffic because a high-priority message needs to be broadcast.

I did not know what had taken place. I had set up the command post about 300 feet west of the fire building in the parking lot of a church. It was not until later that I learned that it was one of our firefighters.

As the initial attack crew was advancing a line down the driveway, a triplex power line burned off of the garage at the service entrance and fell, lodging between the cylinder and back of a firefighter and instantly began to burn in a shower of sparks. His partner stood there and could do nothing. He later commented how powerless he felt knowing that he could not grab the wire or the trapped firefighter without risking electrocuting himself.

For what seemed like minutes, the firefighter walked around the driveway trying to get the wire off of his back. Finally, it dislodged and he walked away. He was immediately escorted to a waiting ambulance, where he was treated, and eventually transported to a local hospital for evaluation. He was treated and released later that night and was back at the firehouse before we had finished cleaning up and getting back into service.

This is as close as we have ever come to losing a brother on the fireground and we never want to go there again.

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.
The need to continually redo that size-up. Emergency scenes are dynamic and ever changing. A continual reevaluation of your personal safety needs to happen so you know your surroundings. Confidentiality. We need to remember to try not to broadcast names of injured members over the air. Family members sitting at home listening to the scanner is not how a notification should take place. We tried to make telephone contact with the firefighter's wife to let her know that he had been taken to the hospital. We called her employer and missed her as she had just left work. We sent our captain to their house to tell her in a face-to-face conversation what happened and where he was. Unfortunately, she stopped at the station before we could officially contact her. However, she was notified and with tact and professionalism so that she did not find out by accident. The value of wearing all of your turnout gear. The firefighter's turnout gear took the brunt of the damage. The coat burned through the outer shell, the moisture barrier and began to burn through the thermal barrier. It never burned completely through. While the firefighter did find two very small blisters on his back Saturday morning, his gear did its job. Don't get me wrong, we never assumed the gear would act as an electrical insulator; it did hold up to the fire and arcing it was subjected to.

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.
Everyone kept to the task at hand that day and kept the fire damage to a minimum by staying focused and not letting an event like this override their emotions. The fire never really burned more than what was already burnt when we arrived. In the end, everyone went home.

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 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.
Ensure that the incident commander conveys strategic decisions related to power line location to all suppression crews on the fireground via radio and the incident commander and sector officers continually reevaluate conditions. Establish, implement and enforce standard operating procedures (SOPs) that address the safety of firefighters when they work near downed power lines or energized electrical equipment. For example, assign someone to serve as a spotter to ensure that the location of the downed line is communicated to all fireground personnel. Who is responsible for that at your scenes? Do not use solid-stream water applications on or around energized or downed power lines or equipment. Ensure that protective shields, barriers or alerting techniques are used to protect firefighters from electrical hazards and energized areas. For example, use cones, ropes or "fire-line tape" to isolate the energized area, or simply do nothing (based on conditions) until the power company arrives. Train firefighters in safety-related work practices when working around electrical energy. For example, treat all downed power lines as energized and make firefighters aware of hazards related to ground gradients. If the wire "might" be hot, it is hot. Ensure that firefighters are equipped with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and that it is maintained in good condition. Ensure that rubber gloves and dielectric overshoes and tools (insulated sticks and cable cutters) for handling energized equipment are used only by properly trained and qualified personnel. In nearly all cases, that is not the job of the average firefighter. Use extreme caution when working in areas of dense smoke. Dense smoke can obscure energized electrical lines or equipment and can become charged and conduct electrical current.

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.

Another photo we received shows a firefighter "moving" power lines (that they claim were not charged) with a pike pole. Again, for what? If there is a long ETA for the power company, gossip for a while. We are good at that. If not, carry a good book in your apparatus. It's hard to argue with the logic that we should not risk a firefighter's life when not attempting to save another person's life. That's "internal customer" service.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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