Fires and high-voltage power: How to stay safe

Not understanding the dangers or proper tactics for fighting high-voltage fires can be deadly


Electricity and water do not mix. There has never been a time where the two have been compatible. This is a well-known fact within the fire service and one that is taught right from the start in recruit training.

Live electricity in a structure fire is a risk we train to neutralize. Yet the power-distribution network that feeds homes and businesses present a completely different set of risks.

Weather plays an important part of our call volume and response types. Think of the storm-related calls you've handled where water and electricity were brought together — maybe it was trees falling onto electrical wires or lightning strikes on transformers.

Regardless of what the situation is, when it involves live electricity firefighters must take their time and be diligent so as to not come into contact with the live wires or devices.

What happens when we ignore this basic fact of not mixing water and electricity? The result is evident in our video example.

We do not know the facts surrounding the video, such as what caused the transformer fire, how much voltage the electrical line carried, or how dire the need was to extinguish the fire. What we do know is that electricity kills firefighters.

Let it burn
For almost every fire department responding to any electrical lines down or transformer pole fire, their protocol is to evacuate the area, ensure that no one is in harm's way and call the utility company to isolate and shut down the power. Once the power has been shut down and verified by the utility company, then we are able extinguish a fire in a pole transformer.

Firefighters need to realize that a fire involving an electrical pole, a transformer fire or electrical lines are not urgent in terms of fire suppression. The urgency is to ensure the public's safety from coming into contact with it as well as that of the responding crew.

Electricity can travel and it travels the path of least resistance — this path can including hose streams.

The firefighter in the video who sprayed water onto the pole transformer is fortunate to have not suffered life-threatening injuries. Besides electrocution, a firefighter can suffer injuries such as an arc flash to the eyes. This is very painful and recovery takes days if not weeks.

Other injuries that can occur are burns to the skin, flying objects that are often molten metal, hearing injuries from sound that can be up to 140 decibels and exposure to heat that can reach 3,500 degrees F.

A fire involving electricity is the first domino of a firefighter safety hazard. When firefighters attack the electric fire with water, it sets off a series of dominos that could end in serious injury or a line of duty death. Interrupt this chain of dominos by evacuating the public and getting utility professionals on scene to cut the power to whatever is burning.

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