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Electric power safety for firefighters

These videos show why it can be fatal to assume a power source is not energized


Electricity is one of the greatest dangers that we face on the fireground. No matter the type of incident – vehicle accident or a structural house fire – electrical safety needs to be taken into account.

We usually relate electrical elements with vehicle accidents or vehicle fires, but the same is true with structure fires. Electrical lines and components are present everywhere we are and we need to treat them with the utmost respect.

The plain fact with electricity is that we cannot see it, smell it or feel it until it is too late. There are no warning signs that will allow us to recognize the dangers of being electrocuted – we can only observe what is present at our scene and treating all electrical lines and components as live until proven otherwise.

The embedded videos show some incidents where firefighters have encountered live electrical power and the results of that contact. It is never a pretty sight, and they are usually deadly.

At one incident, a set of power lines were blown over by heavy winds, causing the lines to fall onto a row of parked cars. The transformer exploded, the lines shorted out and a multi-vehicle fire ensued.

One of the responding fire trucks drove over the downed power lines. And water was applied to the vehicle fires prior to the local utility confirming the power was shut off.

What was learned afterward was that system was monitored by a control office some 200 miles away.

In a situation like this, the fault message will appear on the control center’s system board indicating a problem with power being delivered or being interrupted. The control office will try to reboot the power delivery to that grid, and if successful, problem fixed.

During that incident, there could have been a system reboot to try to reinstate electrical power. If there were firefighters standing on the electrical lines or applying water to the transformer, the vehicles and the electrical lines, a deadly outcome would have resulted.

No matter the situation or the issue at hand, when it comes to electrical safety, stand by until there is confirmation from the local utility that power has been disconnected and it is safe to approach.

Electricity does not issue the kind of warnings that other hazards do. It will catch you if you do not take the proper steps to eliminate the risk.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.

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