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Powerline Safety Education | SNAP CRACKLE POP call 911

Fire safety begins at home and a good home fire safety program includes powerline education for the family.

A real danger exists behind live wire snap, crackle and popping sounds and it is the silent but potentially deadly risks posed by overhead powerlines. With your home fire safety plan ask your local fire department, or power distribution company, for extra education regarding downed powerlines.

We depend on powerlines to power our homes, businesses, and neighbourhoods, but it’s important to always respect their power by using common sense and exercising safety precautions when living, playing or working around them.

Take some time to ask your fire department and review fire safety basics with your family to ensure that everyone in your home knows how to prevent fires, as well as what to do in case of a fire.  Ask for extra education regarding downed powerlines. A damaged pole can be very dangerous. If you see one, stay away from the area and immediately call 911 and the local power distribution company.

Contact with a powerline can happen in an instant, but its impact is felt forever.

Important for everyone in the family to note is that from serious injury, to death, the results of contact with a powerline are always devastating. Add a bit of light rain or a snowstorm and the moisture can mix with the debris to create a conductive path for electricity to travel from the wires to the pole. The fire can burn through the pole and leave the cross-arms and insulators suspended by the wires. The outcome is almost always a power outage.

  • Weather plays an important part of our call volume and response types. Think of the storm-related calls you’ve handled where water and electricity were brought together — maybe it was trees falling onto electrical wires or lightning strikes on transformers.
  • Electricity and water do not mix. There has never been a time where the two have been compatible. This is a well-known fact within the fire service and one that is taught right from the start in recruit training.
  • Live electricity in a structure fire is a risk we train to neutralize. Yet the power-distribution network that feeds homes and businesses present a completely different set of risks.
  • Pole fires are a common cause of power outages during the spring months. When area is dusty and dirty after a long winter, sand and salt can cover the insulators that connect wires to the top of power poles.

Insulators are used to attach electric power lines to wood distribution poles. 

  • Cracks or lightning damage may cause an insulator to fail and cause a pole fire.
  • Dirt and grime can build up on the insulators. Moisture in the air from humid weather, dense fog, light rain, or light, wet snow combines with the dirt to allow an electrical short circuit, which can cause a fire.
  • The short circuit trips a switch, cutting power to the lines, much like the fuses or breakers in a house.

“The electricity will basically track and follow the dirt and it will go to a ‘ground’ or the pole. Once it hits the pole, it starts getting hot and starts on fire,”

Ripple Effect.

If anything makes contact with a high voltage power line, such as a tree or an uninsulated boom on a truck, or if a broken power line falls to the ground or lands on a vehicle, electricity will flow to the ground, then spread out in concentric circles like the ripples in a pool of water. Voltage is very high at the point where electricity makes contact with the ground. The level of intensity decreases as the distance increases from the point of contact.

Zero voltage is approximately 10 metres (33 feet) from the point of contact. Step Potential Due to the difference in voltage as one moves towards or away from the source of electricity it is possible to “step” between high and low voltage differences. As the human body is usually a better conductor of electricity than the ground the electricity can flow between the feet through the body with sometimes devastating results. This is referred to as “step potential.”

Touching Potential Trees can be very conductive.

If a tree comes into contact with a high voltage power line and a person is touching the tree, or touching a ladder leaning against the tree, there will be a high to low voltage difference between the person and the ground. This will force electrical current to flow through them to the ground and may easily result in serious injury or worse. This is referred to as “touch potential.”

Hazardous Tree Identification Falling trees or limbs can break conductors, damage poles, towers, other structures and equipment, or cause short circuits on power lines. Except in unusual circumstances (extreme weather conditions, etc.), healthy live trees seldom cause such problems. Yet trees are subject to injury, disease, insect and fungus attacks and ultimately death. When so significantly afflicted, they may become hazardous to power lines or any other improvements.

During powerline pole/equipment items fires can take place, always Stay Clear.

  • Stay at least 10 metres away from downed power lines or damaged facilities.
  • If you’re in a vehicle and you contact a downed line, drive at least 10 metres away (the length of a school bus). If you can’t, stay put. Call 911.

A fallen wire can create hazards for workers and the general public.

Objects touched by a fallen wire, fences, vehicles, buildings or even the surrounding ground must be considered energized and should not be touched. It is impossible to tell simply by looking whether a downed wire is energized. Consider all downed wires energized and dangerous until the electric utility personnel notify you otherwise.

Remember that the distance the tree is away from the energized lines can be deceiving.

In some cases, it may be just as dangerous to trim a tree 10 to 20 feet from energized lines, as it is to trim one much closer, because a long, large branch can fall into the lines and conduct electricity back to the trimmer who believes he has maintained an adequate clearance.

And the reason you need to know to shuffle:

Due to the difference in voltage as you move towards or away from the source of electricity, it is possible to “step” between high and low voltage differences. This is referred to as “step potential.” As the human body is usually a better conductor of electricity than the ground, the electricity can flow between the feet through the body—with devastating results. So if you must move around within the 10-meter safety perimeter, shuffle your feet.

Remember that if you are inside of a 10-meter safety perimeter of downed powerlines, shuffle your feet to get to a safety zone as stepping and picking your feet off the ground can be deadly.

Let it burn.

For almost every fire department responding to any electrical lines down or transformer pole fire, their protocol is to evacuate the area, ensure that no one is in harm’s way and call the utility company to isolate and shut down the power. Once the power has been shut down and verified by the utility company, then we are able extinguish a fire in a pole transformer.

A firefighter’s guide to facing electrical hazards. Courtesy BC Hydro

Always respect their power by using common sense and exercising safety precautions when living, playing or working around powerlines.

Many people do not realize the potential deadly risks from any contact with a powerline! Besides death, many injuries that can occur including burns to the skin, being struck by flying objects that are often molten metal, hearing injuries from sound that can be up to 140 decibels, and exposure to heat that can reach 3,500 degrees F.

Terry Penney avatar
Oh I'm just a simple safety janitor in life. I clean up the messes and try to keep things running so folks get home safely. On top of 30 years law enforcement service, a past life in the reserves as a commissioned officer, plus training and volunteer fire service, 18 years as fire chief and paramedic. I have taught world wide and to all age groups in life. From kids to adults to grand parents and with a common goal everyone is going home safe regardless if they are working or in school or retired. From Dangerous goods, to fire safety and prevention to why incident investigation are critical to PREVENTION not punishment and finger pointing. And all those small initials at the back of my name have NEVER saved a single person, but they have made folks go home to loved ones and not the morgue.

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