Fireground Safety, Health & Safety

Behind the Flames: Dealing with Electrical Injuries

Firefighter advancing a hoseline into a home
Photo courtesy Ocala (FL) Fire-Rescue PIO Ashley Lopez

By Calvin Allison

Every time the tones drop, you get on a rig and are headed into a world run by power. Every house you go in and every scene you step foot on has electricity of sort. Dealing with electricity is dangerous. It could end your career, and possibly your life, in seconds. I suffered an electric shock while fighting a house fire. I spent my whole life learning from firefighters, and never once did I hear of a first responder getting an electric shock while on the job. Now that I am retired at the age of 33, my inbox is full of e-mails from first responders around the United States looking for help in navigating an electrical injury. One thing is for sure: The amount of information on this type of injury is limited.

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Let’s be honest, being a first responder in any capacity is dangerous. More often than not, you will be faced with situations that are impossible to control and will rely on information from people who are in a stressful situation. The time from when you are dispatched to the time you make entry is often a matter of minutes. That is why good decision making is such an important role on emergency scenes. Even with the best information and decisions, first responders will be faced with uncontrollable situations. Whether it be an unknown modification to a house or an unreported addition, a majority of the scenes have an unknown element. I had never really thought about electricity being modified or altered from its intended use until I was injured. As the world keeps evolving, so does the use of electricity. Even vehicles are becoming a higher risk: As they become more fuel efficient, they are also becoming more energized with more electrical power and higher voltage.

We have so many tools that can handle so many unique situations, but I have often wondered that situation for which we are unprepared. Even bunker gear has had so many advances in the recent years, including higher heat resistance and a better barrier against liquids. However, it seems that there is no way to make it impenetrable to electricity. Moreover, there are not many tools for handling electricity. Why? When you look at most structures, they are basically a foundation, frame, plumbing, and electrical. Departments seem to have so many tools for three of the four. We need more information about how electricity works and how we can best safely control it.

It appears there is no safe way to protect against electricity except removing it from the equation. Either call the electrical company to dispatch a professional to pull the meter and shut down the power, or stop the power on scene by having fire personnel pull the electrical meters.

If your department has chosen to go the electrical company route, it will take a lot of liability away from the department. On the other hand, what happens when the company has no one to send? What happens when all the electrical company resources are on other scenes? Should you enter and hope for the best or try a nondirect approach and shut off the power at the breaker box, knowing there may be more than one box or that the electrical box may have been tampered with?

We say our first concern on the fireground is safety. Obviously, a house fire is not safe by any means, but departments feel we though we have enough knowledge to safely operate. It is astonishing that first responders have literally looked past electricity as a danger. I was taught as a kid not to play with electrical components especially around water. So how are we entering house fires knowing the power is on and just hoping for the best? We have been doing that for years. Again, I had done this job for 10 years before I retired, and I can honestly tell you that for 90 percent of the fires I worked I had no idea if the power was ever shut off.

Yet another approach would be to pull the meter when you arrive on scene using a meter puller. The responders would know for sure that the power is off. But, this method comes with a certain set of dangers. Meter pullers do not come with much information. Electrical companies do not like to give information on how they train their employees because of potential liability for the company. Some of the potential dangers of this approach are arcing and a high-voltage charge.

I wish there was a sure method to approach this issue, but we are not there yet. I would like for the fire service to become involved and in finding a safer method. You may think this is “overkill” and this will never happen to you. My career ended 20 years too soon because of electricity. On August 6, 2012, I was severely injured by electricity while fighting a residential structure fire. I have had three major back surgeries, one of which was a six-level fusion that left me with a 10-pound weight restriction for life. I also had a meniscus tear and 26 broken teeth, and have many other ongoing problems that are still being medically treated. Let’s keep the next responder from walking in my path and find better answers.

BIO

Calvin Allison has been in the fire service for 10 years. He retired from the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department in 2014, after five years of service, as the result of a severe line-of-duty injury. His dad and brothers are members of the fire service. He was an amateur professional motocross athlete from 1996-2012, competed nationally, and won numerous national championships. He attended the fire academy at Haz-Co in Sherman, Texas, and paramedic school at Utah Southwestern, in Dallas. He has sought out various outlets to help others in need and to spread his story with the goal of helping others to avoid a life-changing injury. He began public speaking in 2015 at the “Keeping Tradition Alive” symposium in Lewisville. He is a member of the “Heroes in Action” committee, which is dedicated to increasing the awareness of and supporting injured members of the police, fire service, and the military.

Originally ran July 25, 2017.