Don’t get zapped!!
By JIM DINO / Published: September 17, 2017
DRUMS — Even if it appears there is no power, that does not mean an electrical line is dead if it is lying on the ground or on a car that crashed into a pole.
So the best way to avoid being injured by electricity is to not touch the wire until PPL Electric Utilities employees get to the scene and confirm the line is dead.
With many electrical facilities now in the ground, a live wire can electrify the ground and create a dangerous situation.
That’s the message Douglas Haupt, PPL’s lead damage prevention inspector, made during a presentation Aug. 30 to police and firefighters from Valley Regional Fire Co., Freeland, White Haven and Slocum Twp. outside the Valley Regional station.
“There are different things you need to think about, the different types of situations, to keep yourself, your kids, anyone safe,” Haupt said. “Never assume a wire is not charged, even if homes in the area are dark. It can be de-energized, and get re-energized while you are working there. It only takes a small amount of electricity, 50 milliamps, to kill you. It’s enough to stop your heart.”
PPL Electric Utilities workers Mike Balash and Bob Warnock — dressed in “tested” overshoes, gloves and sleeves — demonstrated different situations in which items touch electrical facilities, using a simulator on a trailer called PPL’s Live Line Exhibit. The simulator has shortened utility poles with various electrical hookups run by a generator.
Balash and Warnock demonstrated what would happen to a person coming in contact with electricity by using a hot dog — which Haupt said has the same water consistency as a human body. In each test, the hot dog began to burn.
“Water is a great conductor of electricity,” he said. “The human body is a good conductor of electricity because it is made up of between 65 to 85 percent water.”
They simulated what would happen to a Mylar balloon if it came in contact with electrical lines.
Haupt said 120, 240 or 7,200 volts of electricity could be passing through that balloon.
“Where is it going? It wants to hit the ground. It is going down that string attached to your wrist, your child’s wrist, and on the stroller. It’s not going to be pretty,” he said.
Then there is the do-it-yourselfer who gets on a ladder at home and uses something to push away electrical wires — to clean the gutter, paint the eaves or hang Christmas lights.
“I saw, with my own eyes, a gentleman up on a ladder, and had his 8- to 10-year-old son, with a 2-by-4, pushing the wire away so he could clean the gutter,” Haupt said. “It is not a good situation. Wood isn’t a good conductor of electricity, but it will conduct.”
He said a squirrel can chew a wire apart, allowing the sun’s rays to penetrate.
“A pinhole in that protection will allow electricity to pass through you,” he said. “Consider it all electrified, unless you are a qualified electrical worker.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructs people to stay 8 to 10 feet away from power lines, he said.
Excavators, meanwhile, are required by law to call 8-1-1 three business days prior to the start of any project to determine the presence of utilities. The reason is that even though underground electrical lines have to be sunk deep into the ground, the final grade of a home construction site may strip away some of the cover, leaving the line closer to the surface — and close enough for a shovel to strike it, Haupt said.
“If you planted a fence post, put in a mailbox, rototilled a garden or put in a tree in your yard, you are all now excavators,” he said. “The law states, if you are hand-digging with a shovel, you are required make the 8-1-1 call for the safety and reliability of our lines.”
The PPL workers demonstrated a wooden-handled shovel going into the ground energized by 7,200 volts.
Police and firefighters encounter situations with electricity at fires and motor vehicle crashes. Haupt presented a scenario in which emergency responders are protecting one of PPL’s wires that is lying on the ground.
“The lights are out, you are under pressure to get that road open. It is going to take us some time to get there, especially during a storm. At some point, you’re going to get courageous enough to walk over there and possibly grab hold of that wire or kick it,” he said. “Treat every wire that is down as energized until we get there and we tell you the line is out and grounded and safe for you to approach and do what you need to do.”
A person holding that live wire, he said, won’t be able to let go.
“What is your body’s natural reaction if you come in contact with electricity?” he asked. “Your body works from electrical impulses from the brain, so your natural reaction of your body is to constrict, make a fist. Are you going to be able to let go? You are taking hundreds of amps of ground fault current to pass through. Ultimately, you can burn free, or someone can try to take a stick from the woods to try to knock you free. You won’t be able to let go.”
The wire itself is not insulated, Haupt said.
“A lot of people call the black (part of a wire) on an overhead service insulation,” he said. “As a qualified electrical worker, I give it zero insulating value. It is simply a black coating.”
The PPL workers demonstrated what would happen if a firefighter’s ladder came in contact with overhead lines.
Haupt also noted that clothing that is advertised as protective is not safe.
“The outer glove protection, over top of our rubber-tested glove, you can buy in any hardware store,” he said. “They are going to tell you it is electrically tested. Is it electrically tested enough for you to touch our system? No.”
The workers tested a hot dog in a glove.
“Nothing that you have in your turnout gear in doing firefighting, police or first responder work, is going to keep you safe from electricity — even through it says it is electrically tested,” Haupt said.
If emergency personnel arrive at the scene of a crash in which a vehicle hits a pole, if a line is laying across the car, the car becomes energized, Haupt said. He advised the first responders to never go up to a vehicle that has struck a utility pole and touch it.
That’s because of something called the ground gradient, when underground lines electrify the ground over them, he said.
“You get to a scene, and there’s a vehicle into a utility pole, and a wire laying across the vehicle or on the ground near the vehicle. If it is daylight, look for the conduit coming down the poles near your scene,” Haupt said. “There may be a person screaming in that vehicle, and they need help. As hard as it may be, wait until we get there. Consider every wire electrified until we get there and tell you it is out and grounded.”
They used a small child’s wagon to demonstrate what it would be like if a car were energized.
“With ground gradient, the safest place to be is in the vehicle,” Haupt said.
He advised first responders who may have to coach someone to exit a vehicle that is touching a power line that the person cannot lose contact with the ground.
“They have to open the door, stand on the doorjamb of the vehicle and hop, feet together, a shoulder width apart, so the feet don’t land separated,” he said. “If someone is injured, they may not be able to hop. They can shuffle, heel to toe. You don’t need to be in a hurry even though that vehicle is catching fire. Never lift your feet off the ground or bring your foot up.”
Haupt also warned emergency responders that a device called a TAC stick — which is supposed to detect dangerous electrical current from a safe distance by sounding warning beeps — is unreliable.
The problem is, although a TAC stick may detect electricity, it may not be at a safe distance, given the situation, Haupt said.
Contact the writer: jdino@standard