“Can electricity kill you if you don’t touch it”
In my full-time occupation, I am a power lineman. I work as the director of safety for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives. Several times a year we have incidents involving equipment contacting powerlines. These generally will result in damage to equipment, but tragically some will result in injury to people. Some of these may lose their lives. I want to take some time this month to try and reach out to you as first responders to take a roll in educating the public of the hazards of electricity. First, the only thing protecting you from contact with the overhead powerlines is distance. There is no insulation on the wires. You don’t have to touch the line; it can jump through the air! For most of the distribution lines you should keep more than 10 feet 1 inch of clearance from any equipment. This includes things like sprayers, combines, discs, planters, feed truck augers, etc. Our farm machinery is getting bigger. Where you didn’t have a problem before there may be a problem now. If you are aware of any clearance issue contact your power provider! The same goes for construction equipment. Manlifts, ladders, and scaffolding often come in contact with powerlines. The overhead wires running to your house are weatherproofed, not insulated. Again, contact the owner of the wire to secure it before putting yourself in danger. Second, call before you dig. The number is 811 and it is free! Doing this can prevent a costly mistake and may even save your life!
What if you respond to a powerline incident? Stay in your vehicle and Stay Back! There are a few ways that you could get yourself in trouble. The first is directly contacting something that is conducting electricity. This could be the wire itself but also, something touching the wire. Most items will conduct electricity at the level powerlines have. Even trees, wood, and vehicles can easily conduct energy. Remember the car may be sitting on an underground box with power in it! Look for clues! In the dark with a pole missing, wires can be hanging very low near the incident. The utility world is very different than household wiring. In a house the electricity is designed to shut off quickly to prevent a fire. In a distribution system it is intended to attempt to reset the line several times to keep the power on. You have all experienced the blinking of lights during a storm. If the system was the same as in your house, they would have gone out with the first blink. Therefore, the lines are never considered dead until a utility crew tells you they are. Never assume they are off because they are on the ground! The length of wire running from one pole to another is called a span. When you respond to a damaged pole, pole fire, etc., allow for the pole plus one span both directions. The second is indirect contact. Stay in the vehicle. If there is a downed powerline, current may be flowing through the earth. This can create a difference of voltage from one footstep to the next. You could be electrocuted by simple taking a step. If you were to fall this could be much worse!
Upon completion, the firefighter should be able to….
• Identify the power providers in your area
• List the emergency contact numbers for the utility
• Explain the reason you should not get closer than ten ft 1 inch form an overhead line
• Ensure all members know to stay in the vehicle until the utility says it is clear.
• Discuss responding to powerline calls.
Scott Meinecke is a member of the Sheldon Volunteer Fire Department, Director of Safety for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, and field staff for the Fire Service Training Bureau. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com