SUPPLYING ELECTRICAL POWER TO REMOTE EQUIPMENT
BY RAY McCORMACK
Electrically powered lights for overhaul, fans for added ventilation, saws to cut building materials–all of these fireground tools require that power be fed from one location to another. These tools generally will get their power from a gas-operated electrical generator. Portable generators are most commonly used and offer the greatest flexibility. Positioning the generator, determining the length of extension cord required and which type of plug to use, and knowing the load the generator can carry are basic truck company functions.
A systematic approach to these tasks will reduce errors, deployment time, and trouble-shooting problems that can occur when using a remote power supply.
You can make your equipment more user-friendly by doing the following:
Tag the cord with its length and company number.
Identify cord lengths by color coding.
Store cords according to length.
Store cords according to plug type.
Use proper coiling methods for easy deployment.
Adapt tools for use with different plug types.
Color code tools and matching plug types.
Maintain an inventory sheet for your equipment.
These options constitute the foundation of a well-organized system, allowing you to quickly set up your equipment and begin operating with a minimum of confusion and delay.
To prevent kinking and damage, coil electrical extension cords correctly. Many truck companies carry portable and fixed electrical extension cord reels. To properly recoil an electrical extension cord onto a reel, start the cord at one side of the reel. Continue to the opposite end before starting the next row on the reel. Start winding the next row directly above the ending point of the previous row. Continue to the opposite end. Continue this alternating method until all the remaining cord is wrapped onto the spool. Storing extension cords on reels rarely causes a deployment problem and helps extend a cord`s service life.
Extension cords that are improperly hand coiled will become kinked or knotted. The best method for hand coiling extension cords is the one used by television and movie crews. This method ensures that extension cords will play out without kinking. It takes a little practice but pays off in a hassle-free operation.
Anytime you are using more than one extension cord or working with a tool attached to an extension cord, tie a square knot at all connecting plug ends. When making the knot, start back approximately one foot from the plug end to avoid kinking the cord. Leave this knot loose but snug enough to keep the plug ends from coming apart. If a tool or cord is pulled, the knot will absorb most of the force and keep the plug ends intact. When moving an extension cord, avoid pulling from the plug end. Instead, grasp the cord so the plug end hangs free. If you follow these two steps when moving and setting up your power supply, the chances of a cord`s disconnecting are drastically reduced. Keep the cord out of standing water whenever possible; use any item available to accomplish this.
Individual extension cords can be stored vertically or horizontally within a compartment. Having a storage area specifically designed for this equipment facilitates deployment, inventory, and inspection functions. Whether extension cord reels, hand-coiled cords, or a combination of both are used, storing them in a sheltered compartment minimizes damage that can be caused by weather extremes and other tools.
In addition to being tagged (color coded), tools used for cutting, such as chain and circular saws, should have short power cords. Many electric chain saws are manufactured this way. Circular saws, however, often come with longer cords (eight to 10 inches)–which are fine for homeowners but are more likely to be accidentally cut on the fireground, necessitating that the tool be placed out of service. To reduce the likelihood of this, especially during a critical operation such as a collapse rescue, modify all electrically powered tools used by firefighters so they have short power cords. If the extension cord powering the tool is cut, a quick replacement can be set up and operations can continue.
Most fire departments have a policy stipulating that electrical tools be powered only by department generators. Some reasons for this policy include the following:
No power source may be available.
The available power source may be damaged or unreliable.
A blackout may have occurred.
The firefighters maintain control of the power source.
Firefighters should be self-reliant.
Your generator is your power source and the key to successful remote operations. Know how to start and operate it (including operating the choke). It and the tools it powers should be inspected weekly. The inspection should include testing the power generator under load and by itself and checking the generator`s fuel supply and additional fuel, fluid levels, air filter, spark plug, and electrical connection box. A generator`s power output can vary according to the tools being used and the unit`s condition.
The best way to know your generator`s capacity is to test it. Run the unit under load and see how many and which tools can be operated simultaneously. By performing weekly inspections, you`ll have a good idea of how your generators will operate when they are needed.
If possible, operate gas-powered generators from a smoke-free environment. Avoid operating them in a confined space, below grade, or in areas of limited ventilation. An oxygen-deficient atmosphere will cause generators to stall and place firefighters operating nearby at additional risk from the engine exhaust.
CORDS AND PLUGS
Excessively long extension cords can lead to kinks and lessen power output. Use only the length of cord needed for maximum tool reach. Tool power output is diminished when you use too much cord. The distance from the power source to the tool should be as short as possible for maximum tool efficiency. Use the longest length of cord first, and keep adapters to a minimum. The fewer connections from the power source to the tool, the better. The type of extension cords carried may vary from unit to unit. Most units carry two plug types–the twist lock and the standard three-prong grounded plug. Firefighters must learn how the different plug styles and sizes connect and how compatible they are with the different tools and extension cords carried on the apparatus.
If your power tools are going to be used more than 300 feet from the power source, it`s best to quickly pretest the tools at the generator before reaching the point of operation. If, then, there is no power at the point of operation, the tools usually can be eliminated as the source of the problem.
Anytime electrically powered equipment is in use, the possibility of receiving a shock–from a mild tingling to a heart-stopping jolt–exists. Equipment safety and scene hazards are concerns when using electricity. Firefighters inspecting the equipment must be thorough. Damaged electrical extension cords must be removed from the apparatus and replaced. Tool plug-end connections should be tight-fitting, and plug prongs should be straight. Extra caution is needed at operations where water is present. Keep yourself and your tools as far away from this hazard as possible. Try to avoid body contact with metal surfaces when operating tools, and make sure the plug ends are made up tightly so that if the tool plug is laid on a conductive surface, it will not energize that surface. Making sure your generators are properly grounded or contain ground fault interrupting receptacles in addition to taking proper safety precautions are your best protection against electrical injury.
If you were to ask most firefighters what piece of equipment on their truck was the most important, a generator probably would be rather low on the list. Yet, when you think about all the times it has powered tools that enhanced operations, prevented injuries, and saved lives, the generator deserves to be moved up a few notches on that list. n
RAY McCORMACK, a 13-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant assigned to the 16th Battalion, City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He has a bachelor`s degree in communications from the New York Institute of Technology and is a New York State-certified fire instructor and emergency medical technician (EMT) and P.A.D.I.-certified in advanced scuba diving.