A Collaborative Approach to Electrical Vault Fires

Electrical vault fires may not be common in your response area, but if one were to happen today, is your agency prepared to handle the emergency? What are the expectations of your local electrical utility? What is its response time? Is the response time longer at night? Is water the expected extinguishing agent? How confident are you that power has been secured prior to extinguishment? What’s your plan?

I asked myself and others at my station these and other questions when our department was enhancing our procedures regarding electrical emergencies. We quickly learned that there were several miscommunications that had been propagated over the years through the brutal “telephone game” of information passing through verbal report and the lack of a written policy and expected procedures when it came to vault fires and other electrical emergencies.

Ultimately, electrical vault fires are a low-frequency event, but they have the potential to be very dangerous. A vault fire can initially present with a minimal amount of smoke showing and rapidly evolve into a powerful explosion, followed by fire and thick black smoke exiting the vault. Electrocution is not the only hazard. Manholes can easily become heavy projectiles that can travel several hundred feet in a vault fire explosion. The products of combustion can travel through utility chaseways into the basements of adjacent buildings and into the next vault space down the street. These fires are not to be taken lightly. They can get away from you quickly.

High-voltage electrical vaults are not limited to in-ground installations. As the electrical demand of growing cities increases, electrical vaults are routinely installed within buildings to ensure the proper dissemination of electrical power throughout larger buildings.

History of Power 25: A CO2 Extinguisher Specialty Apparatus

I (Greene) am the captain of Seattle (WA) Fire Department (SFD) Engine Company 25. Our station, for more than 40 years, has been the quarters for a piece of specialty equipment (Power 25) that was jointly purchased with money from Seattle City Light (SCL) and the SFD. Power 25 (P25) earned its name for its onboard electrical generator that, when purchased, was not available on the SFD ladder trucks. It carried several lights and other electrically powered equipment, but the main purpose of the apparatus was the cascade carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguishment system mounted on the chassis. SCL noted the need for the availability of a large volume of CO2 product on a responding apparatus to protect the electrical grid in the city. Over the years, dispatching P25 to incidents decreased as the need for its onboard generator became unnecessary because every ladder truck in the city now had the capability. Similarly, the use of CO2 product in electrical vaults decreased because of miscommunications between SCL and its expectations of the SFD.

Three years ago, we began closing several gaps in our procedures to include the following improvements: Memorandum of Understanding,1 standard operating procedures (SOPs), dispatching, staffing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and several improvements in equipment to enhance effectiveness while becoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Fire Protection Association compliant.

My station is part of a newly created group within the SFD called the “Vault Fire Response Group” (VFRG). The VFRG is comprised of Station 25 members who have been specially trained through SFD/SCL interagency training. After the creation of this group within the SFD, VFRG members have become the subject matter experts who respond to electrical emergencies and assist in making decisions with the incident commander prior to the arrival of an SCL supervisor. This was determined to be important because of the expected response times of SCL supervisors to the scene of a vault fire.

SCL leadership expressed that it was important for its agency and the citizens of Seattle that an evolving electrical vault fire be extinguished or held under control as soon as possible. As a result, internal VFRG procedures were developed to identify opportunities where it would be permissible to deliver CO2 into a vault space prior to removing electrical power to the vault. This “offensive” fire attack significantly decreases the damage of a vault fire to the energy equipment, resulting in shorter out-of-service times to customers and significantly lower dollar loss from fire events. There is an added benefit of ensuring continuous power supply to critical loads within the city whenever possible.

SFD’s recent history with electrical emergencies is a great success story. It all started with relationship building and improving communication within our organization and with our public utility partners. Holding discussions between your fire department and the electrical utility will greatly enhance your fireground effectiveness and safety the next time an electrical vault fire occurs. We owe it to the citizens to be professional in all aspects of our job, and electrical emergencies are often overlooked. Can your city improve in this area?

(1) Fire Department of New York Rescue 1 with Con Edison Number 9 and Seattle (WA) Fire Department and Seattle City Light personnel conducting a hands-on vault fire rescue drill in January 2017. (Photos 1 and 3 by Lt. Tim Frank, Seattle Fire Department.)

(1) Fire Department of New York Rescue 1 with Con Edison Number 9 and Seattle (WA) Fire Department and Seattle City Light personnel conducting a hands-on vault fire rescue drill in January 2017. (Photos 1 and 3 by Lt. Tim Frank, Seattle Fire Department.)

Some Basics

Assuming a defensive posture is the standard response to these events—and for good reason. “Stay back, keep the public away, and wait for the utility company to deenergize the space” is the typical strategy most departments follow. There are many misunderstandings about vault fires and other associated energized spaces; attempting to close this information gap can be difficult. There is no cookie-cutter answer, and gathering all the information needed to properly address these events can be extremely time consuming. The following are some of the basics that may help your department close this gap.

Contact your electrical energy provider. Just as in prefire planning, your fire department members must become familiar with electrical spaces and their hazards. Our experience has shown that the energy providers are more than willing to provide access to these spaces and can offer detailed information that will assist in building a more complete risk benefit analysis for this type of emergency. Consult with the provider about what your department will be expected to do in such an emergency. Work directly with the electrical engineers and the line crews. Each has a unique view about the equipment and hazards to anticipate. Having the supplier involved in developing your prescripted response ensures that you will be on the same page should an emergency occur. Building trust and familiarity between the fire service and energy providers helps to ensure safety and success.

(2) Fire Department of New York and Con Edison training session with Seattle Fire and Seattle City Light personnel at the Con Edison Learning Center. (Photos 2 and 4 by Chris Greene.)

(2) Fire Department of New York and Con Edison training session with Seattle Fire and Seattle City Light personnel at the Con Edison Learning Center. (Photos 2 and 4 by Chris Greene.)

Create a plan. Creating SOPs for electrical fires is essential. Fires in electrical vaults, substations, manholes, and so on can be very dangerous and necessitate a systematic approach to ensure the safety of the responders. Specialized equipment may be needed to approach the fire area and for control and extinguishment. Is your department willing to have a level of offensive engagement in certain circumstances prior to the removal of power to the area? What is an acceptable risk? What are the specific parameters that must be present for shutting down service to the area?

Evaluate your department’s electrical detection equipment and PPE. It is essential to ensure that personnel can determine if equipment/spaces are energized prior to approaching the problem area. Stray electrical energy and the step potential effect can kill a firefighter in emergency settings. These hazards are not visible to the naked eye and must be evaluated with specialized equipment by trained personnel. Standard structural firefighting PPE is not designed to protect against the hazards in an energized electrical vault and is not sufficient to protect against the possibility of an arc flash event.

(3) FDNY, Con Edison, Seattle Fire Department, and Seattle City Light personnel after a drill at “The Rock” FDNY Training Academy in 2017.

(3) FDNY, Con Edison, Seattle Fire Department, and Seattle City Light personnel after a drill at “The Rock” FDNY Training Academy in 2017.

Build relationships to improve communication and training. Recognize that your department and the energy provider need each other. The benefit to an ongoing work group is the assurance that the progress made will continue as times, personnel, and equipment change. In 2016 and 2017, the SFD and SCL spent considerable dollars to ensure that we were not operating “in a bubble.” We made efforts to contact several cities of comparable size to inquire about their electrical emergency SOPs and policies. As a result of these contacts, members from SFD and SCL traveled to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City (NYC) to learn how our team could better respond to electrical emergencies. We now ensure that we travel (and constantly train) with SCL because we recognize that these emergencies require a team effort. The newly established closeness between SFD and SCL is the foundation for our protocol for electrical emergencies. The great trust built among our agencies has fostered a foundation for solid communication and quality training.

(4) Vault Fire Response Group training with Seattle City Light. High-pressure CO2 is introduced into the energized vault space. This space is energized at 15 kilovolts during the exercise. This maneuver is extremely scripted to ensure consistency and safety. Each position is critical for a safe and an effective offensive posture.

(4) Vault Fire Response Group training with Seattle City Light. High-pressure CO2 is introduced into the energized vault space. This space is energized at 15 kilovolts during the exercise. This maneuver is extremely scripted to ensure consistency and safety. Each position is critical for a safe and an effective offensive posture.

Building Relationships

When the SFD and SCL visited NYC, we met with representatives from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and Con Edison, the utility. We spent three days exploring the relationship that FDNY and Con Edison had built. These days also afforded us the opportunity to visit the Con Edison Learning Center, make site visits to various types of vault spaces in Manhattan, and engage in some hands-on training at the FDNY Training Academy. It was immediately apparent that the FDNY and Con Edison have established a model rooted in frequent communication and training that works extremely well for their agencies. The principals involved in this training event explain the arrangements from their specific perspectives.

Captain Rex Morris Jr. (FDNY Rescue 1). The FDNY has an important working relationship with our utility company (Con Edison). This partnership was forged out of necessity because of the volume of electrical emergencies/fires each year. All FDNY officers receive awareness training from Con Edison as part of their officer development courses. The SOPs for the line units (engines and trucks throughout the city) for electrical emergencies have been developed and are coordinated with Con Edison.

FDNY rescue and squad companies in the Special Operations Command (SOC) receive training at the Con Edison Learning Center as well as at the FDNY training academy. The training for these specialty companies focuses on electrical systems, meters, tools, and equipment. These classes focus on electric as well as on gas and steam emergencies. The SOC companies carry multiple electrical meters, tools, and safety equipment that are not available to all engine and ladder companies throughout the city. Some of this PPE and equipment is provided by Con Edison. These tools and equipment provide SOC companies with the capability to safely identify, contain, and isolate electrical hazards, when necessary. SOC has also worked with Con Edison to develop tactics and procedures on how to rescue civilians, firefighters, and Con Edison workers in extreme life-threatening situations.

The knowledge and equipment that have been shared between SOC and Con Edison over the years have not only added to our efficiency but have also greatly improved the safety of FDNY members. This has also enhanced our capability to protect life and property, to include NYC’s electrical infrastructure.

Brian McGeever (Con Edison, Emergency Response Group—Emergency Management Division). The Consolidated Edison Company of New York Inc. (Con Ed) supplies power to the metropolitan and surrounding suburbs of NYC. It has been in existence for a long time when compared to other suppliers in the United States. Over the course of our existence, we have developed several protocols when dealing with unexpected incidents in our system.

In 1998 (five years after the first World Trade Center bombing), Con Edison saw a need to create an Emergency Management Department. Our first Vice President of Emergency Management Dick Morgan felt that there should be a group of experienced, mid-level management Con Edison workers who interact with our first response community. Because nearly 80 percent of the fire incidents that happen in NYC involve one of Con Ed’s commodities (gas, electric, steam, or transmission lines above and below ground), he felt that they should respond to jobs, ensure first responders are aware of all potential hazards from a utility standpoint, and use incident command to manage these incidents. This unique Con Edison department is called the “Emergency Response Group” (ERG).

Con Edison has always had a department that responded to electrical emergencies, called “Number 9.” This department is made up of highly skilled, experienced cable splicers (which we call “high-voltage trouble shooters,” along with experienced management personnel). Their main function is to respond to electrical faults, outages, and fires in electrical utility spaces. Their objective is to mitigate emergencies in the Con Edison system, such as manhole and transformer fires (in concert with FDNY), and restore service to customers who have experienced outages. The majority of responses the Number 9 trucks are dispatched to are initiated by calls from police or fire departments within our service territory. The ERG complements Number 9 and other departments by helping to manage emergencies by organizing larger jobs by implementing the incident command system. The ERG also builds relationships with the FDNY and other agencies before the bell rings. Part of the relationship building involves the members of the ERG teaching utility hazard courses inside local firehouses and at their training academy.

Morgan was truly ahead of his time. When he initiated the Emergency Management Department, most utilities in our country were not thinking there was a need for such a group. It is my belief that his forward-thinking approach has created a dynamic between FDNY and Con Edison that is second to none in the country. The resulting relationship makes both organizations better at their job and ultimately safer.

Morgan responded to the command post on 9/11 prior to the collapse of the Twin Towers. Unfortunately, Morgan perished in the ensuing collapse of the North Tower. He made the ultimate sacrifice (as many Americans did) that day. A plan was made shortly after 9/11 to expand the ERG to all commodities. Initially, there were nine (thus, Number 9 Trucks): one in steam, four in electric operations, two in gas, and two in substations. The group has since expanded to 10 groups. The members of substations have become industrial firefighters. This allows them to safely enter electrical spaces (involved in fire) along with FDNY members to keep them safe while they conduct fire suppression operations.

Hamed Zadeghol (Seattle City Light, Systems Supervisor—Network Engineering). Seattle City Light (SCL) was founded in 1910. It is headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and serves more than 700,000 customers. It is the nation’s 10th largest public power system from a nationwide set of more than 2,000 public power systems operated by municipalities, counties, states, cities, or other public bodies. Among SCL’s different service areas, downtown Seattle stands out as a dense “network” system of towers and high-profile loads. The network system is primarily underground with thousands of vaults and conduits connecting parts to each other. SCL’s downtown network is a highly reliable power distribution system with its last major system outage dating back to October of 1994.

In the event of electrical emergencies, a network system typically has means of automatically isolating parts of the affected areas and leaves other nearby parts of the same electrical system energized. In cases of fire in electrical facilities, the SFD would usually be on scene before utility personnel could respond. In the past, the fire department would secure the area and wait for utility personnel to arrive. Since 2014, SCL’s network unit and the SFD have joined forces and have begun a comprehensive review of the existing protocols for vault fires and fires in walk-in vaults. SCL and SFD’s joint work has led to new procedures in some areas, training fire and utility personnel in vault fire protocol, joint training exercises, and implementation and improvement of equipment for SFD personnel. SFD and SCL have also evaluated present time shortcomings and identified where improvements are needed in areas of clothing, equipment, and safety. We have also reviewed and considered what other large urban fire departments and network utilities are doing when responding to electrical vault fires.

Many fire departments around the country will simply safeguard the area around a vault fire and deny access while awaiting the electrical utility’s arrival. Our research and collaboration with the SFD has allowed the identification of a safe procedure (rooted in policy and SOPs) to allow an offensive attack on the electrical fire prior to SCL personnel arriving to the scene. This is invaluable to SCL. The faster a vault fire in the downtown network area is contained and put out, the less risk for total shutdown of power to that area. A fast response by fire department personnel and the utility will significantly reduce the risk of a fire spreading to other vaults, increasing safety to the responders and the public alike. This also results in a shorter out-of-service time to the equipment involved in fire and will ultimately save the customers and utility’s rate payers money in the long run.

It is my belief that this relationship between SCL and the SFD is invaluable to ensuring success in future incidents in the city of Seattle, and I am proud to be a part of this collaboration.

Extinguishing Agents: Pros and Cons

CO2. Carbon dioxide is a commonly used, inexpensive, and proven nonconductive extinguishing agent for electrical fires. It is nondirectional and creates an inert environment with the additional benefit of cooling the space. To use CO2 effectively, it is needed in a large quantity, and it must be delivered continuously to maintain the displacement of oxygen in the space. It is also important to control the ventilation of the space to maintain CO2 saturation in the area of the fire. (National Fire Protection Association 12, Standard on Carbon Dioxide Extinguishing Systems, offers specific information of CO2 percentages, saturation time, and venting allowances.) The use of CO2 to control and extinguish electrical vault fires is reasonable when the equipment is still energized because of its nonconductive properties; however, specialized equipment, PPE, and training are essential to ensure a safe operation. CO2 may not be reasonable to use as an extinguishing agent when the fire location is significantly remote from the bulk supply.

Water. Some departments apply water into in-ground electrical vaults by bouncing the stream off the street at a low pressure and into a vented grate or manhole serving the space. This allows the water to break up as it enters the vault. The idea is that this will safeguard against potentially energizing the hoseline. Water is cheap and abundant, but using it as the primary extinguishing agent for energized spaces is NOT without risk. It is possible that the stray voltage may energize grating or the manholes serving the space, and water from municipal hydrant systems can be very conducive to transmitting electrical energy. Water is abundantly available and can be delivered anywhere we could expect to fight a fire. However, the time delay to ensure that equipment and spaces are deenergized prior to water application can result in the hazard increasing prior to the incident deescalating. Units staging in the area of the fire event with a hoseline can be caught off-guard by an arc flash or transformer explosion event.

Chemical extinguishing agents. Many brands and variations of these agents engineered specifically for energized spaces and equipment are available for purchase. Many appear to be effective, but there is no “one size fits all” solution. If you are relying on a chemical extinguishing agent, ensure the local electrical utility is involved in the discussion. Some may negatively affect their equipment. Similarly, explore the various sizes of underground and in-building spaces to ensure that the product will extinguish the volume of space expected to be found throughout your city.

Electrical vault fires can be intimidating to fire service personnel. There are many unknowns about how these spaces are constructed and the hazards they represent. Many firefighters have seen videos of manholes flying high into the air after a manhole explosion but have never been on a response where this has occurred. Most action plans for fire service personnel responding to a smoking underground manhole space (or grate) consist of closing off the area and awaiting the electrical utility. When electrical utilities are delayed because of time of day or availability to respond, what is the plan? Looking more closely at options is important for the safety of responders, the public, and the city’s electrical infrastructure.

Whatever protocols are developed for engaging a vault fire, whether offensive extinguishment tactics are employed prior to the electrical utility’s arrival or if defensive tactics are to be implemented while awaiting its arrival, remember that the electrical utility is “part of your crew” on these incidents, and it needs to be involved in the plan. To be effective, this must occur well before the fire.


1. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is often used between intercity agencies to clarify the expectations of each agency. This understanding aids in ensuring consistency, safety, and success during emergency events.

Chris Greene is a captain in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department.

Rex Morris Jr. is a captain in the Fire Department of New York and is assigned to Rescue 1.

Brian McGeever is a member of the Emergency Response Group—Emergency Management Division of Con Edison, New York.

Hamed Zadeghol is systems supervisor—Network Engineering, Seattle City Light.

Timothy Frank is a lieutenant and an 18-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He is assigned to Ladder Company 10, which is a part of the Vault Fire Response Group stationed in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. He is a search manager for the Washington State FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (WA-TF1).

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