Frank Cheatham: Electricity and You

By Frank Cheatham

It is often said that what you cannot see or hear will not hurt you. It is also a well-known saying that tunnel vision is a big issue for many of us in various aspects of our daily routine. Another favorite saying that many instructors will use is, “I will pose more questions than I will answer.” I would pose that in the field of emergency services, these sayings may be present more than we realize.

Let’s take a minute and consider the first saying, what you cannot hear or see will not hurt you. I am sure there are many who would want to debate that, but let’s put it in the realm of electricity during a response by emergency personnel. This could be a fire response or an emergency medical services (EMS) response, as it can apply equally across the board. When we enter a room and flip a switch, there is instantly light or a fan or something that happens to the movement of that switch. Although we see the result of that action, what goes on before we flip that switch? Can we hear electricity? Can we outrun it? Where is the electricity, and what does it do when it is not being used?

As you can see, there are many more questions that will enter into this topic of electricity and emergency response. A lot of the questions that will come up will need to be directed to the local utility that covers your response area. It can be a huge resource. More on that later.

Many folks know a lot about electricity, but how many are aware of what goes on when things go wrong? Many of us learned a lot in school about electricity and have taken that with us as we have gone on in life. We remember not to be the last in line when someone grabs an electric fence and so on. The goal in this is for everyone to go home after every response, especially those calls that involve fire and electricity. In many of the responses we are involved in, there is some exposure to the electrical hazard. Structure fires are especially hazardous when you add the electrical component.

So now that all of these questions have been posed, where do we go next?  First, let’s consider what exposures we have at the various types of calls for service. Certainly, motor vehicle crashes and structure fires come to mind as two of the big ones. How about tree trimmer contact cases as well as painters who make contact with overhead lines or construction accidents with cranes?   Also, there are the homeowner cases of digging and coming in contact with underground facilities as well as overhead lines, and then what about contact cases inside the house?

In recent years, there has been any number of contact cases involving firefighters, some involving fatalities. I am sure that there are just as many cases of close calls that do not get reported, not just in the fire service but in EMS as well. Is it that we get tunnel vision and forget because we cannot hear or see it? Perhaps in some cases, but also we get so focused on rescue/save that we get into situations from which we cannot easily retrace our steps and get out. These cases have ranged from ladder trucks/aerials coming in contact with overhead lines to contacts at brush fires that were caused by downed power lines. Investigations have revealed any number of causes/contributing factors in each case, but the bottom line is the same, injuries or death. What gives?

In investigations that I have been involved in regarding contact cases while I was employed by the power company, a common theme always seemed to come out. The people involved either never looked up or thought about looking up or were so involved in what was going on at hand that they forgot to look up. Some even indicated that they did not think electricity would “jump” to the equipment. Perhaps a safety officer/safety watch/safety person might be an answer to reduce any further exposure. What happened to a “size up” prior to beginning tactical operations? How do we get trained to recognize something as small as a #2 pencil or perhaps even smaller? That is where some discussion with your local utility might start that process or at least help you to become more versed in what standard operating guidelines you might need to have in place for your organization.

Another area that always seems to garner a lot of discussion is, “Why does it take so long to get someone to respond?” How can we get better response during bad weather so we can clear up the apparatus for other calls? The answer to those questions may best be answered by contacting your local utility to find out what the staffing is at various hours of the day/night. Does it have people on the clock 24/7, or does the local serviceman have to be called out from home? Another question might be what does the utility do during certain weather conditions to speed up response to wires/poles downed by trees/wind. Remember that if the personnel are working on one hazard, they may not be able to drop what they are doing to respond to your call for service. What they are working on may be unsafe, and they have to make it safe prior to leaving, or they may even by at the top of a pole in the backyard that will require them to complete certain work before coming to your location. In addition, they do not have emergency lights to get through the traffic or around various blocks that might be impassable because of weather-related condition. Priority is given to calls from the emergency services, but there are some instances that regardless of how critical the call is, getting someone free to take it is next to impossible. Again, it will be educational for all to contact your local utility to see what their situation is and what you can expect. During that discussion, perhaps you will learn of certain information that would be helpful when you have to call for assistance.

With the plethora of electrical utility companies within the United States, you will find that all will have different response procedures, so it becomes more important to establish a communications link with the companies that serve your service area. With that link, your organization should be able to establish the appropriate SOGs that should protect the members and the organization in any situation involving electrical hazards that arises. The one thing that you need to keep in mind is to be open to having to deal with responses that you may not understand or like but is the best the utility can do based on the call load when you call in. For planning purposes, it might be good to talk with the utility about what information it would want you to get during storms that create many calls for service.

Many times, I have heard people say that when lines are down on the ground and are not sparking they are dead or de-energized. There are many scenarios that can be written, but the bottom line is that all lines are considered live unless the utility declares them de-energized. Each utility has procedures to make certain that lines are de-energized and safe. There have been many instances where wires on the ground or down were live; in some instances, people who have made contact with them were injured or killed. Since the sizes of the conductors range from small to very large, you cannot look for a certain size wire.

Structure fires present many hazards concerning electricity. Residential meters can be located in many different places. The various types of electrical services make a common procedure difficult to establish other than to call for the electrical utility as soon as you can in the process. It is easier to send the utility personnel away than it is to ask for them late in the game. In previous times and still in some areas, many departments still pull electrical meters. In the company I worked in, there is now a directive recommending that fire departments not pull meters. There were several factors involved in making that directive; the two main ones are interpretations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the safety aspect of pulling meters. If your department still pulls meters, I strongly recommend that this topic be one of the first to be looked at in your discussion with the local utility. It is best to make sure this is covered and understood before an accident causes investigators to bring it up.

On wire-down calls or in storm situations, the hazards increase in high multiples. Part of that is caused by automatic devices used by the utilities that might cause lines to become energized. The other hazard is the homeowner may have incorrectly installed a generator and sent electricity back in the lines. These are hazards that are unseen and unheard until it may be too late.

We can’t see it or hear it under normal circumstances, but when wires come down, there is a lot of blue light and a loud noise that will cause your feet to engage long before the brain decides it is time to depart the area. Shortly after that, there will be a loud noise somewhere as the fuse blows, if it does.

There are too many scenarios to cover in this article, and I know I have not answered many questions that you might have. My intent is to try to get you to start the process of thinking of identifying what is needed to safeguard your members and the organization. In all calls, safety must be the first consideration, especially when electricity is involved. As in any emergency medical technician course, the first thing taught is to be scene safe. It needs to become the same for all responses regardless of the cause.

Please use as many of these questions to at least review what SOGs you may have in place at your agency, and make sure they cover the needed areas. Start a conversation with your local utility; and get it to bring training opportunities to your department. There is also a company that has put together some training for electric and natural gas situations. That company is AEGIS; its Web site is


FRANK CHEATHAM is HMERT coordinator for the Virginia Office of EMS, responsible for EMS task forces. He previously spent 34 years at Dominion (VA) Power. He has been in various positions in EMS since the 1970s. He is an EMT-B and instructor in various topics including mass casualty and extrication.

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