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The power of electricity: 3 simple steps to minimize the danger

Video shows how one contact with a charged wire can lead to terrifying events

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Firefighters across North America face a common utility hazard – electricity. Whether a small town, rural area or a large city setting, the hazards posed by electrical utilities are the same – and they are everywhere. There will be wires running from pole to pole and entering buildings as well as wires coming in from supply lines to supply the smaller feeder lines. This omnipresence is to be expected; after all, most of our modern activities are powered by electricity.

As beneficial as electricity is, it can be deadly for firefighters who do not respect its power.

Firefighters working around electricity must remember that the electrical current itself is invisible, but we can keep an eye on the wires used to deliver the current. Spotting those wires is critical to our safety.

In our corresponding video, covered by FireRescue1 here, we see an example of the power of electricity.

A high lift being used by a worker comes into contact with an overhead power line, causing the lift to catch on fire and trapping the worker 25 feet above the ground.

While this incident involves a fire response to a citizen in peril due to electricity, there are times when it is the first responders in grave danger. There are times when an aerial device could come into contact with overhead wires, prompting the same reaction as in the video above.

Recently there was an aerial ladder truck being checked in at Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services on the front tarmac at the station. During the routine morning check in, the aerial device came into contact with a set of overhead wires. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the new truck was destroyed.

So how do we reduce or eliminate the risks for firefighters working around electrical lines?

  1. First, always maintain situational awareness, particularly working around overhead wires with an aerial device or ground ladder. As a refresher, situational awareness means knowing what is going on around you at all times – below you, above you, everywhere.
  2. Maintain a distance of 10 feet or more when working around power lines. This is the minimum distance recommended by most utility companies. This will help minimize the chance of accidental contact between arching wires and an aerial ladder or ground ladder.
  3. Lastly, use a spotter when working with ladders. When raising a ground ladder or using an aerial ladder, having a second set of eyes will always help with avoiding this hazard. They can inform the operator of how close they can be with moving the ladder around electrical lines.

These types of incidents can be avoided through the implementation of safety practices, but these practices must by trained on routinely so as to develop that muscle memory.

After watching this video and covering these tips with your company, take the following steps to further your training:

  • Refer to your local utility company for resources on working around electrical lines. They may even come in person to conduct a training session for the department.
  • Check to see if your department has SOPs or SOGs detailing what needs to be done when working around power lines.
  • Discuss options for how to avoid the same result as the high-lift operator in the video.
  • Discussion how your members would help the high-lift operator while maintaining their own safety around power lines.

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.