By Mark van der Feyst
Every fire service operation is promoted with a high element of safety by trying to ensure that all personnel conduct themselves in a safe manner; this is to guarantee that all go home when the task is complete. One of the most dangerous tasks that we perform is raising ladders. There is a high risk of danger accompanying this task because of the overhead obstructions that are around us.
Overhead wires are perhaps our biggest concern, as electrical wires have killed firefighters on the fireground numerous times. We mostly hear about line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) when an aerial ladder contacts an electrical hydro line. One such LODD occurred on January 7, 2008, when Captain Jim Robeson of the Scranton (PA) Fire Department was electrocuted when the aerial bucket that he was operating contacted high-voltage electrical lines at a house fire. The power had been cut to the house, but not to the lines on the street.
Recently, I responded to an event that involved high-power electrical lines and vehicles on fire. The local utility company informed us that even though the power lines may have been cut from the pole, they can be back fed on the grid to supply power again. At the same time, the lines are monitored by a local office about 100 miles away. When they detect a fault interruption in the system, they will “reboot” the line to once again transmit electrical power. If the fault interruption continues, they will send a crew to fix the problem. The lesson learned here was that until the local utility company confirms the power has been terminated and disconnected. Every line needs to be treated as live.
In basic training, we always teach students to look for any overhead obstructions such as trees, wires, and parts of buildings when they are raising a ground or an aerial ladder. Trees present an obstruction to ladders, but not in the deadly sense (although wires can run through trees without being seen). We must regard any wire as dangerous and take every precaution necessary to avoid them. Whenever I teach firefighter I test prep, I always instruct the students to verbally say, “No overhead wires or obstructions.” This verbal dialogue helps the student to remember to look up before he raises the ladder. It also tells the evaluators that the student was looking for overhead obstructions.
Overhead wires are also a constant obstruction in residential, commercial, industrial, and rural areas, some more than others. There are increased numbers of overhead obstructions in densely populated areas. These obstructions will prohibit us from conducting certain operations. Photo 1 show an alleyway behind main street buildings in State College, Pennsylvania. The buildings have commercial or mercantile occupancies on the first floor and residential occupancies for students on the second, third, and above floors. You can also see all the way down the alleyway.
(1) Photos by author.
Notice that all the wires are feeding the different buildings. The hydro pole is tilted on purpose. If you look closely at the base of the first hydro pole in the picture, you will see that it is right next to the building. If the pole were erected straight up, it would contact the building. So, it has been angled outward to avoid this. Now, the hydro pole is less than 10 feet from the other building across the street. If we had to affect a ladder rescue of a civilian trapped on the third floor, would you notice all the overhead wires that are present?
I mentioned that the hydro pole is less than 10 feet from the building—we have always been taught to avoid contact with any live electrical line within 10 feet. This prevents any chance of arching from the ladder and the electrical line. Would we attempt to rescue a person with these overhead obstructions present? There are a lot of “what ifs” that are associated with this scenario.
More Big Questions
Is the power turned off, is there another way for you to rescue a victim, where is the fire, and is there more than one person to rescue? We could spend an endless amount of time debating the “what ifs, but there are firefighters out there who have conducted rescues with overhead wires right near them (within 10 feet). This situation dictated the circumstances. However, they attempted the rescue because they first looked up and observed the overhead obstructions, and they knew what was there.
Whenever you are raising any ladder, have a spotter. We always use one when we are backing up an apparatus, so why not use one when we are raising a ladder? An extra set of eyes is useful for spotting any overhead hazards that you, as the ladder operator, may not see.
So, how do we train for this? First, equip our training towers with overhead obstructions. Photo 2 shows a training tower with a high-rise building and a residential building.
Around both buildings are typical overhead obstructions that you will find in your response area. These wires are not live; they are being used to train the firefighter to look up before he raises any ground ladder or aerial ladders. Wires all around a building offer varying levels of difficulty when raising a ladder for aerial and ground operations.
We must train our firefighters to always look up before we raise a ladder. Having them say aloud “no overhead wires or obstructions” may be a good start.
Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India, and at FDIC. He is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and an instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia. He is also the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue (Pennwell).
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