Downed power lines pose extreme threat

DOWNEY - Last month a family in San Bernardino suffered a horrible loss because of a downed power line.It has been reported that one family member exited the house before dawn after a wind storm to investigate a small fire in his backyard, came in contact with a downed power line and was electrocuted. Then another family member went to check on her downed loved one and was electrocuted. Finally, a third family member went to check on the other fallen family members and suffered a similar consequence. Clearly, this is an unimaginable tragedy. We know accidents occur, sometimes despite our best efforts to prevent them. However, for a single accident to take the lives of three well meaning people in a matter of minutes is cause for great concern. This week let's give some thought to 'situational awareness' regarding electrical power supplies. The term situational awareness is frequently used by fire and law enforcement officials when they consider emergencies. For our purposes, let's apply the concept to one aspect of our daily lives. How often do we see something wrong (or right) in front of us and not look around to see if there is some information we could be missing? This may have been a factor with the tragedy in San Bernardino. It is speculated that the first person to be electrocuted went outside the house, into his backyard, to investigate a small fire. We will never know if he suspected the fire was caused by a downed power line. It would be tough to see a power line draped across a backyard in the darkness. His wife followed him into the backyard when she saw him on the ground. Again it is speculated that she likely walked to him and either touched him or stepped on the downed power line herself. Electrical current needs only a small area of contact to deliver its powerful punch. We will never know if she was considering what may have caused her husband to fall to the ground. Unfortunately, her son followed her out into the yard and succumbed in the same manner. Electrical power is quiet and deadly. Those in the power industry and in emergency services all live by the credo, 'treat all power lines as though they are live.' The diameter of a power line doesn't necessarily give an indication of the amount of electricity carried by the line. The power lines carrying the highest voltage (usually seen at the highest part of the power poles) typically don't have insulation encasing them. These high-voltage lines can appear smaller than the lower voltage lines supplying a typical residence. Don't be mistaken, any of the lines used for distributing electrical power can provide a fatal shock. Power lines have certain safety systems that can shut off the flow of energy to a specific (downed) line during an emergency. But like any system, there can be problems. The rule of thumb for residents and business owners should always be stay back and away from downed power lines and use 911 to report the problem to the fire department. Do not be lulled into thinking the downed line is 'dead' since there is no popping and snapping at the end of the line. There are numerous stories of power lines popping and snapping immediately after they fall to the ground and then becoming quiet and still…only to come 'alive' again a short while later. If we experience the shaking of an earthquake, notice a strong wind has developed or experience a power loss in our homes, let's be sure we are aware of the possible problems that could exist immediately outside our doors. In many residential and business areas, overhead power lines 'feed' the building with electrical power. In many of these same areas, overhead power transmission lines span from pole to pole to feed the rest of the area. Any of these lines can drop for various reasons. Before walking outdoors, be sure to look for downed power lines in all directions. If you happen to see a downed line, look for another route that is clear of this type of problem. During major windstorms and immediately after earthquakes, emergency responders may have increased response times. During these emergency situations, it is important to remember to stay away from any suspected electrical power problem and to keep others away as well. Be prepared to wait for emergency responders. Consider keeping watch (from a safe distance) on the problem to ensure neighbors and others in the area don't stumble upon the problem. Keep situational awareness and electrical power problems in mind when you find yourself in the area of an emergency. If something doesn't look right, take a moment and think about the cause of the problem. Your situational awareness efforts may save your life and the lives of others. If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Mark Sauter is the emergency services manager for the city of Downey.

********** Published: February 10, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 43