National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System: Downed Power Lines

Storm periods strain emergency and utility service crews. Multiple calls for downed power lines and the commitment to getting things back to “normal” after severe storms can press crews into actions that expand risk. Hazards that would normally be seen and identified are overlooked due to the increase in calls for service, nature of the calls and the rate at which the calls are dispatched. During storms, the opportunity for a near miss escalates due to the overload factor.

“…my engine responded to a report of a downed power line. We had been having a high wind event for several days and had gusts over 80 miles per hour that morning…power company was on scene and had shut down all power to the area…a large tree had broken off about half way up…The fallen part of the tree was 30 inches in diameter and had fallen in such a way that the power line, which was normally 15 feet above the ground, was now only five feet above the ground…After confirming again that the power was off, I asked the line foreman if he could clear one of the two crews from our scene in order to assist a second engine company who had live lines in a tree that was currently on fire…my engineer and I are both certified Class B Fallers…After removing most of the overhanging tree, we had about eight inches left to cut in order to free the line…we felt that, once freed, the line would come up about six to twelve inches.

When my engineer was about three-quarters of the way through the final cut, the saw bound in the tree. After a discussion we decided to use a pry bar to open the cut just enough to remove the saw. As my engineer and firefighter started to pry open the cut I reached over the line with my right hand to remove the saw. This is when the last of the wood that was holding broke loose…An eight inch thick, 30 inch diameter disc of wood struck me in the face…I was knocked to the ground…the tension on the line could have been in the tens of thousands of pounds.”

Incidents such as these remind us of the presence of unforeseen hazards. Transportable skills, like the expertise in felling trees, can come in handy on any given incident. However, matching a transportable skill to an incident should always be accompanied by an additional hazard scene assessment to ensure the skill and task are in sync. As the reporterobserves in the Lessons Learned, the power company uses an additional step when they remove a tree from a downed line under tension. Consider the following:

  1. What role do you believe the power company played, or should have played in the near miss that occurs in this report?
  2. A “transportable skill” is one that is learned in one industry and used in another. In this case, what were the pros and cons of the transportable tree felling skill?
  3. Where is the nearest available chain saw to you? If it is in your company, has the company been formally trained and certified in its use, or is the training ad hoc (in house/informal) in nature?
  4. List three actions that went right with this incident.
  5. This report identifies a secondary hazard (lines under tension) to the downed power line scenario. Can you identify any other hazards in addition to electrocution and lines under tension that downed power lines present?  

Wanting to “mitigate the hazard” is an easy reach for emergency responders. It is the overarching goal of every response. The hazards we face upon arrival are not always readily visible. One of those hazards is clearly being on the lookout for “the unknown.” The second is the amount of pressure put on us, often by our own doing, to make a situation better. Mitigating incidents is what we do best. How we accomplish that mitigation needs to be weighed against the ranked incident priorities of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation.

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Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.

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