Electricity in the Air

By Michael N. Ciampo

Responding to an electriCAL emergency can always be an intriguing call. Perhaps we might find a water leak from an apartment on the floor above dripping into a fuse panel and causing smoke and sparking conditions, a light haze of smoke in a commercial occupancy from a burned-out ballast, or a prong of a plug broken off in a wall outlet from someone pulling on the electrical cord. Responding to an electrical emergency always involves that distinctive taste, smell, and odor, but finding its source might take time.

On this call we walked into a party, which is always difficult, especially with the loud noise and trying to decipher who is telling you the right information. Luckily, a tenant took charge and led us through the living room to the back bedroom. But first, one member checked the apartment’s fuse panel for any blown fuses or tripped circuits. (Be prepared that many times the panels are not marked as to which rooms they control.) Glancing around the party, we saw the large flat-screen television on, a homemade DJ stage with music playing, and a spinning light on the ceiling and wondered which one could be the reason for the lingering electrical odor. As we entered the back bedroom, the smell became stronger, and we heard crying and weren’t sure if it was coming from the large flat screen in the room or a child.

Looking up at the ceiling while walking in, we noticed a bulb dangling from an open-design, two-outlet light fixture. It was a fluorescent twist bulb that was still in the socket, smoking but with no visible flames. We shut off the light switch on the bedroom wall and held the thermal imaging camera (TIC) up to the fixture, trying to ascertain if fire was beneath the ceiling surface. We radioed the member at the fuse panel, who informed us that none of the circuits had tripped, and asked him to begin shutting them down to isolate the power to the bedroom. We saw a child on the bed crying and thought he was afraid of us, but then the mother removed a wet towel from the child’s leg, revealing a deep burn. The child was on the bed with some other children watching videos when the bulb failed, dripping molten material and burning his thigh.

We relayed to the chief that EMS was required and began to eliminate the hazard above our heads. To give ourselves some work space, we took the child into another room for medical attention. Although the TIC showed no signs of fire spreading beneath the ceiling, it did show some significant heat levels around the light fixture’s base. Even though the metal base absorbs and holds heat for a period of time, we examined beneath it to ensure there were no melted wires or smoldering joists next to the outlet box. First, we carefully removed the fractured bulb, then removed the other bulbs, and then took the fixture down to expose the electrical box and wiring. All the wires were intact, and none melted; they were properly connected with wire caps and electrical tape. The TIC showed no signs of extension in the ceiling around the electrical box.

Meanwhile, one member examined the bulb that had separated: Its interior elements showed signs of melting to one side into the shape of a droplet and its base had a burnt outer casing. Since the child was burned on the bed, we checked the bedding and mattress and found a smoldering hole burning into the mattress, just as we suspected. Quickly, a firefighter expelled some of the pressurized water can onto the smoldering hole and then pulled out a knife to cut open the mattress. He cut out a small burnt-out section, and we brought it into the bathroom and soaked it in the sink. Luckily, the area beneath that was not burned and showed no signs of heat, but we expelled more water from the extinguisher into the area to be safe.

We returned to quarters with the bulb and began searching for answers. Many brands of fluorescent light bulbs are available from foreign manufacturers who want to capitalize on consumers who go “green” to save energy. However, many of these bulbs are not listed by Underwriter Laboratories (UL) and end up on discount store shelves in many neighborhoods. Although they have markings that look similar to the UL label, they aren’t listed by UL. Lately, we’ve had numerous runs involving these types of bulbs. A previous incident involved one that was in an enclosed fixture with frosted glass, which hid the type of bulb. The tenant told us a fluorescent bulb was in the fixture. After we got our small A-frame ladder, one member unscrewed the light fixture’s retaining nut and removed the glass dome. Immediately, the electrical odor became stronger, and we noticed that the housing on the bulb was melted. Taking them both out of the fixture, we noticed that it was a cheap bulb. Small print on its base read, “Not to be used inside an enclosed fixture.” We checked behind the fixture’s base and wiring; all were fine.

We’ll respond to a lot of electrical odors, and it may take time to track down the source. Make sure you don’t overlook the lights.

For related video, go to http://bcove.me/6n5xccko

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 29-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

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