Electrical Hazards: Is Your Department Prepared?

Electrical facilities often come under the category of “if we cannot hear them or readily see them, we do not consider them within the scope of hazards that confront us.” In many instances, the environment we face on the fireground is not conducive to revealing the electrical facilities that might be within the scope of operations. Lack of visibility is often to blame when the first assessments are made. “Heavy smoke showing” will obscure the electrical facilities that are always present at structures. You need to train so you can locate the electrical facilities even in heavy smoke and make sure that the other appropriate personnel are also aware of them. Make awareness of electrical hazards a part of everyday life. With all the new construction around, electrical facilities seem to appear overnight.

RESIDENTIAL OCCUPANCIES

Although new electrical facilities could be predominately underground for new residential occupancies, transformers and splice boxes need to be considered. In many areas, the electrical facilities may be overhead, and then there may be a mixture. A wire-down situation with entrapment can really get the adrenaline going. This is where the basic training must kick in. It does absolutely no good for responders to place themselves in a position of becoming a victim.

Structural fires in residential areas present some unique hazards. Whether the electrical facilities are found on side A, B, C, or D of the structure depends on factors too numerous to cover in this article. The key is to locate them and make everyone aware of the location. In older residential areas, the electrical facilities are predominately overhead. The question, however, remains whether the facilities are in the front or rear of the property. Not every property has poles with wires crossing them. The service to the structure could be coming from underground. In some cases, the meter might be inside the structure and not visible to the people outside, which may delay the securing of the utilities. Call the utilities early in the response. There are a multitude of questions that need to be addressed including the following: Where does the service connect to the house? Are there downed wires? Are there overhead wires that will interfere with ladder placement? The first-in officer should address these issues in the initial size-up. As the incident progresses, the safety officer should monitor the situation and report any changes that may affect the utilities.

In the case of a structural fire that is in proximity to overhead poles and lines, you must recognize that the heat and flames from the fire might cause the lines to melt and fall. Even if the wires are on the ground, there is no guarantee that the electricity has been shut off. That is where the local electrical utility comes in. It must confirm that the electricity has been cut off.

Another hazard in residential scenarios is related to generators occupants may have installed in their homes. Generators installed by professionals usually have disconnect switches. Those installed by the homeowner often present problems for utility workers, since they generally are installed without assistance or inspections.

Transformers allow electricity to be transformed from a higher voltage to a lower voltage and can also work in the opposite manner, going from a lower voltage to a higher voltage. Should the normal electrical source be interrupted and a generator is improperly attached to a home, the electricity produced by the generator could “feed back” out onto the wires and through the transformer. If there is any question about the lines being “live,” the utility is the best resource. Electricity can flow through transformers in either direction, thus the term “back feed.” Stay away from downed power lines.

COMMERCIAL OCCUPANCIES

This category includes anything not residential and not mentioned under “Site-Specific Locations.” These areas might be shopping areas, light industrial, or heavy commercial factories, to name a few. The characteristics of electrical facilities are difficult to generalize in these cases, but there are a few things to consider in general.

  • Voltages and amperages are higher in these settings than in residential occupancies.
  • In the downtown areas of many cities, the utility facilities might be in vaults and ductwork. These facilities are considered confined spaces, and responders must focus on the associated additional hazards. Responder access to these areas prior to arrival of the utility is highly discouraged. Utility personnel are a useful resource regarding access once the power is confirmed to be off. As you move outside of these central areas, the electrical facilities begin to be more aboveground, where the clearance issues become critical. In some areas, jurisdictional codes address the clearance that must be maintained in the immediate vicinity of overhead electrical facilities. In Virginia, we have the Virginia High Voltage Protection Act.

The close proximity of power lines to many structures means that any equipment used to access the structures is bringing you closer to the overhead lines. Keeping this in mind, it is important to establish a cooperative arrangement with the local electrical utility.

On many occasions, the proximity of the overhead electrical facilities has complicated the fire attack and necessitated altering the attack plan. This factor should be considered when conducting the hazard assessment.

In some cases, electrical facilities in shopping centers are underground and terminate in Electrical Mechanical rooms. These rooms should be identified in preplans. In some of the newer strip malls, the meter locations may be in the cockloft or at one end of the structure and not in close proximity to the store that might be involved. Again, preplans should address this situation.

Some commercial occupancies might contain several business establishments that can present challenges in a fire situation. Again, the locations of the electrical facilities should be listed in a preplan.

SITE-SPECIFIC LOCATIONS

Apart from the locations mentioned under commercial occupancies above, the following additional structures should be considered.

Large facilities in the first-due area may have electrical facilities that include, but are not limited to, overhead facilities, some underground facilities, or even a substation. The substation is a fenced-in area containing the transformers and associated equipment. The gates are usually locked, and the keys are held by the utility. When there is a fire within the fenced area, there is NO need for the fire department to gain access until the utility arrives. The hazards to which firefighters can be exposed are not worth the risk.

The local electric utility may own sites for which responding firefighters may require special training. Your fire department should contact the utility to make provisions for the training. Develop a relationship with the utility that will ensure a continual flow of information and training.

TRAINING

Training that prepares firefighters to recognize electrical hazards and to safely operate in the presence of these utilities is sorely needed. There have been too many close calls. Firefighters must be made aware of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations concerning electrical hazards and should become familiar with their jurisdiction’s codes. Every jurisdiction and local electrical utility is different. Each department needs to determine if there is a plan for its state and what applies to it. If there is no state plan, the jurisdiction will fall under the federal guidelines. Each type of fire may have a different reference in the regulations.

There is a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report on a firefighter who was electrocuted that all departments should study. The report is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/NIOSH Web site under firefighter fatality investigation that occurred in California in February 2005. Departments must develop and implement standard operating procedures relative to these hazards and establish training programs that address these electrical hazards and ways to mitigate them safely.

PROCEDURES

What SOPs does your department have on this subject? When were they written and by whom? Who reviewed them? Was someone from the local utility involved in the process? Are there jurisdictional codes that need to be reviewed and included in the SOPs? The answers to these questions may affect the procedures that are currently in place.

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This article may have answered some questions on electrical hazards, but it probably has left many more unanswered. There are too many aspects of electrical hazards to cover in one article. Starting a dialogue with the local electrical utility to determine area-specific hazards is the next step to increasing knowledge and safety regarding electrical hazards. Training in electrical hazard safety should be continuous and ever-changing to meet the needs of the agency.

FRANK CHEATHAM spent 34 years with Dominion Virginia Power, where he served most recently as operations supervisor; he has held roles as lineman, safety supervisor, and trainer. He has served in emergency services in various capacities for more than 30 years and is a deployable resource coordinator at the Virginia Office of EMS. He is an EMT-B and a life member of the East Hanover (VA) Volunteer Rescue Squad.

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