Electrical Danger to Emergency Service Personnel

Recently, an incident occurred in which a downed wire electrified roadway striping and created an extremely hazardous condition that could prove lethal to emergency responders and the public.

The Westbury Fire Department (NY) responded to an alarm on Willets Road in Old Westbury for primary electrical wires down and burning in the roadway, the result of a rainstorm. On arrival, apparatus and chiefs’ vehicles were directed to stage several hundred feet from the downed wire. One of the assistant chiefs exited his vehicle and began to approach the scene to confer with Old Westbury police officers.

While walking in the roadway, this assistant chief heard a buzzing noise originating from the ground near his feet. Looking down, he observed what appeared to be blue electric arcing intermittently crossing a crack in the asphalt. The crack in the road asphalt was at least 100 feet from the area where the downed primary wire was lying in the road and arcing. The crack in the asphalt also cut through the double yellow centerline striping causing an approximate one-inch-wide separation across the width of the striping. All emergency response personnel were immediately advised of the hazard and were directed to stay out of the roadway. Authorities were notified to respond for the downed power line.

After conclusion of the incident, an investigation was done to determine the reason for the electric arc’s being so far away from the downed wire. The downed primary electric wire had fallen and made contact with the double yellow striping in the center of the roadway. Approximately 25 feet of the yellow striping had burned and appeared to have melted. Residue from the melted yellow striping exposed what appeared to be the cause of the current flow. The yellow striping has a metal foil backing running the entire length and width of the stripe. Apparently, the downed power line energized the yellow striping, and the electric current traveled along the metal foil backing for at least the distance of the crack in the roadway and continued for an undetermined distance. When the current reached the crack in the stripe and the roadway, the current jumped across the opening, causing the arcing condition. It is unknown whether the rain conditions increased the yellow striping’s ability to conduct electricity.

The hazard of and concern about the electric current’s traveling along roadway striping was brought to the attention of the Nassau County Department of Public Works for its review. A representative from the Department indicated that his department had not been aware of this hazard. He further advised that this striping material was used on many roads throughout the county.

The Department is very concerned about this hazard and will be conducting an inquiry into this matter with the manufacturer of the yellow striping. The Department does not know if the municipalities use this material on roadways under its jurisdiction. The striping is not the type painted onto the surface of the road: rather, it is rolled out and usually heated to adhere to the road surface. It has a bright yellow reflective surface that is rough to the touch.

The seriousness of this safety hazard to fire, police, and medical emergency response personnel, utility workers, victims, and pedestrians is readily apparent. This condition could potentially be present wherever downed power lines occur, such as at auto accidents; wind, rain, snow, and ice storms; electrical equipment overloads or failure; and building collapses. All emergency response personnel should exercise care to avoid this hazard.

Warn everyone at the incident scene of this hazard, and deny entry to the hazardous area. Incident safety officers must assess the injury potential and report it to the incident commander. Implement appropriate scene security and safety measures.

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