Let’s begin with the basics. The mnemonic SHOCK (Senseless Handling Of Current Kills) is a valuable insight. This memory device is deeply rooted in experience. Raising ladders around electrical power lines is risky, but at times it may be the only option. Even with wooden portable ladders that have metal bracing, electric shock is a possibility. First responders need to develop a reasonable list of safety precautions to protect personnel. Only by detecting the presence of electrical hazards on the fireground can they be avoided or fireground activities adjusted accordingly.

Standard operating guidelines and regular realistic training are designed to enhance recognition of key hazards before any harm can occur. Before any fireground activities take place, evaluating the consequences of a potential injury, based on its likelihood and severity, is a viable risk-control measure. Risk assessment must be more than a textbook theory; it must be applied daily in strategy, tactics, and tasks.

In March 2004, the city of Tampa, Florida, hosted the first Firefighter Life Safety Summit, at which 16 initiatives were adopted. The template for long-term safety improvements involves a new emergency responder mindset. All endeavors pivot on clearly stated safety policies. At the strategic level, specific and timely objectives are needed. At the tactical level, there must be an awareness of potential hazards. At the task level, better overall control of the working crews is essential. Incorporating these initiatives into our operations will enhance the probability of safely completing any assignment.

In the emergency services, significant risks are easy to find, depending on the type of response and occupancy involved. Manufacturing facilities may have explosive processes, hospitals may have medical waste, warehouses may have high-rack storage. Transportation systems may have below-grade accidents. Railroads can be targets of sabotage or terrorism. Nightclubs have large open assembly areas, and hotel rooms have small cubicle spaces. The incidence of school shootings has increased. In emergency response risk assessment, occupancies should be evaluated according to potential injury risks and mitigation efforts.

Yet, the single common fireground hazard that is difficult to avoid, regardless of the type of occupancy, is energized electrical equipment. The demand for electrical power is growing, and overhead power lines are an ever-present threat to responders regardless of their individual tasks or positions.


The initial response of four engine companies, two ladder companies, and two battalion commanders had just been dispatched to a report of a structure fire in a section of West Philadelphia. The fire was reported in a grocery store in a business district along North 40th Street. It was daybreak when the first-alarm units arrived at the scene. The first incident commander’s Brief Initial Report clearly described conditions. Heavy smoke was pouring from behind the metal pull-down gates.

The battalion chief immediately deployed all incoming companies. An offensive attack began. Engine companies stretched mobile handlines. Ladder companies provided forcible entry and initiated ventilation. The fire was in a strip of five stores. All were two stories in height and built of ordinary construction. Each store was 18 × 35 feet in area, and fire was showing from two properties in the center. A dispatch protocol would add a rapid intervention team (RIT), a rescue company, medic units, and a deputy chief.

En route, I began my mental size-up. Construction, occupancy, fire protection features, and exposures were primary concerns. From a distance, a cloud of smoke was visible. On arrival, the 40th Street side was already designated as side A. At a glance, the rear of the stores appeared difficult to access. A narrow driveway snaked behind the burning building, and elevated dwellings were nearby. This would soon become side C. After I was informed of the problems, progress, and needed resources, command was transferred.

The command post was established on the A/D corner to view fire spread and monitor critical exposures. The first-due battalion chief would work the front side and be assigned the radio term Sector A. The second-due battalion chief would be placed in the rear and become the Sector C supervisor. Dividing by geographical area helped in managing the whole scene.

The Little World Grocery Store was a double property and fortified with plywood on all windows. One strategic decision was to limit ventilation in Sector C to reduce the possibility of driving the fire into the raised residential properties that were within 20 feet of the structure. Interior suppression teams needed support. The rescue company began cutting away the plywood window coverings on the front side from portable ladders. Progress was slow, and the fire was making enormous headway. The maneuvering hose streams could not contain the fire within the grocery store. A second alarm was needed, and units had to be withdrawn. The operating mode was switched to a defensive posture.

Soon, four chief officers, large-diameter hose companies, and a ladder company would arrive to provide additional assistance. The incident action plan (IAP) was modified and communicated. Ground streams and a ladder pipe from Sector A would be used to stop the spread of fire. Another elevated stream, positioned on the C/D corner, would be used to protect close exposures. As the incident commander, I enjoyed watching the sector supervisors coordinate the tactics. The status reports were favorable. All personnel were removed from the building and located outside the collapse zone. The accountability board was accurate. The RIT was in position. Everything seemed to be going well for a Monday morning. Then the safe fireground began to unravel.


A loud crackling sound was heard from the overhead power lines around an aerial ladder being raised, and a bright flash of light illuminated the primary distribution line. Almost instantaneously, a second flash occurred in the area. Quickly, the emergency scene was changing. The Sector A supervisor, attempting to check on the situation, stepped over a five-inch hoseline and touched the rear of the ladder truck. He was tossed into the air!

Priority radio reports began to come over the tactical channel. The messages were concise. They contained the dreaded words, “Firefighters down!” The normal procedure would be to immediately direct the RIT to intervene. However, on this morning, four members of the RIT were standing near or were in partial contact with the aerial ladder truck and had received the full force of the electrical current. One firefighter had burns to his hands; another was bleeding from the mouth. The sector supervisor received a shock and was briefly knocked unconscious. A verbal request was sent to the dispatch center for a third alarm and three additional medic units. The fire was burning, but the mass-casualty incident was the priority on Side A.

Fortunately, a first aid station and a Rest and Rehab Sector were already established. The medical plan needed to be expanded. The four on-scene paramedics addressed patient care and created a triage area for five injured members. A Casualty Collection Point was identified and communicated. Additional ambulances staffed with paramedics would set up the Transportation Group. The injured were moved to a nearby trauma center for medical treatment. The electrical shock had caused entry and exit burns to three members. Two of them remained hospitalized overnight. One was moved to a burn center because of the size of the open wounds on his hand and foot.

The fire was eventually extinguished; there was extensive damage to the grocery store. Within a short time, a review of the 40th Street incident took place. An overview offers many ways to enhance performance.


• Always be on guard for the unexpected. Information sharing is key. Before moving any overhead aerial apparatus, the operator at the turntable must have properly placed spotters. Because of the excessive noise around operating apparatus, a nonverbal communication method using hand signals or flashlights is essential and produces positive results. Knowing the causes of an electrical accident is fundamental to preventing future mishaps.

• Logistical support is always needed on the emergency scene. First-aid stations must be identified, and trained medical personnel need to be properly equipped and supplied for all types of injuries. The duration of an electrical shock determines the severity of the injury, which can range from a slight tingling sensation to nerve damage or even ventricular fibrillation. An effective medical plan must include hospitals that provide specialized treatment for trauma and burns.

• Integrating a risk-assessment process into all fireground actions demonstrates a commitment to improving firefighters’ safety record. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Don’t let the sense of urgency influence you to take actions that may result in an injury. Treat all power lines as if they were live and high voltage, and maintain a safe distance of at least 10 feet. Keep personnel clear of aerial equipment when it is rotating or operating. Emphasize that responders must limit contact with any apparatus and the ground at the same time. History has shown that there are no risk-free positions inside or outside a burning structure.

• Incidents must be organized and managed from start to finish. Essential elements of any IAP are a stand-by medical component and keeping the companies out of harm’s way. Train all responders to recognize electrical hazards and shield the RIT so the team is ready for any rescue assignment.

• Communications must be standardized. The National Security Presidential Directive No. 5 requires departmental doctrines to be adjusted to match the national approach. Internal policies must be consistent with the terminology in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Procedures for all first responders should have a single method for dividing the scene. According to the National Response Plan (NRP), “Division” designates a geographical assignment, and “Group” designates a functional assignment. The use of sectors is not listed.

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Recently, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) published a retrospective review on personnel safety. Data collected indicate that rarely is it an isolated issue that causes an injury. Often, it is a cascading chain of events. Responders must be familiar with developing high-risk or negative-impact situations so that risk mitigation actions are automatic. Using a system approach for the identified problems will keep your next emergency scene under control. Fireground activities are fast and furious; effectively managing firefighter safety hinges on education and experience. In 1957, the fire service adopted standard orders for safety that classified common mistakes. These important instructions gave responders ample warning of inherently dangerous circumstances. The instructions noted specific examples, such as failing to have a direct communication link among the task, tactical, and strategic positions-a serious breach of basics.

The target of any safety training is an injury-free fireground. Officers and firefighters must always remember to watch out for energized wires when operating specialized apparatus, raising extension ladders, or using metal hand tools.

The demand for energy will increase. Improve the odds of having a safe scene by knowing the characteristics of electricity, stopping any unsafe acts, and looking out for others. A core value of the protective services is dedication to duty. Anticipating hazards saves lives-this means watching out for our own. Don’t let the rescue of the RIT become part of your “shocking” story.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for 34 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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