10 keys to electrical fires and emergencies

What firefighters need to know about mitigating electrical emergencies


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Electrical fires come into bedrooms by lamplight and into kitchens greased with poor wiring. And lightning into an attic, often via a tree too close to the house, will bring firefighters to the scene.

The NFPA estimates that all structural fires involving electrical failure or malfunction kill more than 400 people a year, with over 1,200 injuries and a direct loss in property of over $1 billion. (Photo/DoD)
The NFPA estimates that all structural fires involving electrical failure or malfunction kill more than 400 people a year, with over 1,200 injuries and a direct loss in property of over $1 billion. (Photo/DoD)

Severe weather – hurricanes, winter storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods – are sufficient electrical fire-starters. The rest are man-made electrical hazard fires originating with accidents, poor selection and maintenance of connections, or aging infrastructure involving equipment and materials.

Short-circuit arcs of electricity are caused by water, mechanical damage, defective or worn insulation, faulty contacts or broken or loose connectors. A quick spark from electrical fences, transformers or even computers can ignite a fire.

Household electrical fires

The NFPA estimates that all structural fires involving electrical failure or malfunction kill more than 400 people a year, with over 1,200 injuries and a direct loss in property of over $1 billion. And, according to the USFA, electrical fires account for 80% of residential fires and most often occur in January during the day. In order of location probability, it goes kitchen, bedroom, attic or roof assembly, walls, living room, laundry, bathrooms and garages.

Regardless of origin or transmission, wiring is the basis of most electrical equipment fires. Over 50% of these fires involve electrical distribution and lighting equipment – wiring, breakers, fuses, transformers, lights, appliances and computers. To make matters worse, these fires spread in the interstitial spaces and recessed lighting fixtures of any structure, but especially in the home where wiring is hidden. The result is often extensive spread before any indication of a problem on the exterior surfaces.

An arc of electrical current between two conductors, given enough time and current, can produce sufficient heat from an arc to start a fire. Arcing in the home can be caused by worn insulation, pinched wires and damage from nails, screws or drills. Extension cords under carpets generate enough heat to eventually produce an arc of electricity sufficient to ignite nearby material.

Firefighters’ initial response to electrical emergencies

When it comes to an electrical emergency, firefighters know to turn off the power source, grab a C-rated extinguisher if the power is on or a Class A-rated extinguisher or handline after command confirms power off. A firefighter’s response must be one of suspicion at all times. Is that electrical smell real? Are lights flickering? Does anybody remember what dispatch said?

When it comes to a vehicle accident involving live wires, telephone poles or a large transformer, a firefighter’s task is to keep vehicle occupants calm – not the easiest of jobs as the rest of your company slowly grabs a pike pole, tarp and can.

On scene, line officers determine the items at issue, their environmental risk and any and all possible threats or hazards to civilians. Command will direct fire department response – power off, victims rescued, patients stabilized for transport. Dispatch, through the incident command center, contacts utility agencies, confirming location and grid numbers.

Response parameters for electrical fires

Any object touching a charged line is charged. While wood is a poor conductor as compared to a steel rod or solid straight stream, given enough amps or voltage, YOU will be charged.

An electrical emergency is not so much an indication of instability but rather a respect for intermittent force. Electrical power can be restored at any time for any reason, and tactics must reflect this axiom. For an on-scene firefighter, this means the potential for high voltage any time and at substantial amps with little resistance – more than enough to injure or kill.

The next axiom being that all wires are not equal. Whether attached to utility poles, buried or inside walls, telephone, cable TV and some fiberoptic protective sheaths look like electrical wires. Isolating the area may be the preferred response until a trained utility repair line worker arrives.

While simply opening a circuit to off or “breaking” it with the flip of a circuit breaker may eliminate the direct hazard in a residential or local commercial structure, larger incidents may not be so cooperative in solution. If the electrical emergency is substantial enough, local, regional and state government will be included, especially if the incident escalates, with roads needing to be closed and equipment and/or personnel moved accordingly. Firefighters must recognize this leap in electrical severity.

Planning and preemptive training for electrical fires

Many jurisdictions require utilities be contacted somewhat indirectly to avoid nuisance calls. Some allow direct contact with authorized personnel or through recognized channels. Regardless of individual policy and procedure, contact information is made available to all responders through dispatch.

Every company and agency should know their role and event responsibilities. As a firefighter, know the communication and response connection to utility emergencies in your district, region or area of coverage.

Progressive fire departments coordinate pre-response plans into workable mutual-aid packages with local, regional and state utility representatives, electric companies, as well as many small service companies. Whiteboard, computer simulation and sandbox exercises are encouraged and lead to networking, on-scene familiarity and eventual documentation, not to mention a few good lunches. The advantage of these network trainings is that many of the same entities learning together offer courses on electrical hazard and threat response as well as identification and mitigation safety.

10 keys for a fire department response to electrical fires

Following are 10 keys to a safety-focused and command-driven fire department response to electrical fires:

  1. Command confirms all responding units and dispatch have been notified of an electrical incident and/or fire.
  2. A safety zone is created and secured with appointment of on-scene safety officer until neutralization of power is confirmed.
  3. Neutralization of power is confirmed by experienced command officers for smaller incidents and power company officials for larger incidents. Neutralization can be as small as pulling a plug to an appliance, shutting off a breaker in a basement or garage, or as large as a utility agency shutting off service to a hazard area measured in blocks or miles.
  4. When it comes to fires in electrical devices, such as transformers, if unable to cut power, let it burn and maintain exposure protection. Calculate plume spread.
  5. Ventilation is a priority, as electrical fires contain harmful chemicals over and above Class A combustibles (See No. 4).
  6. If overhead electrical wires are involved, position apparatus and personnel accordingly, following a “two poles away” rule.
  7. Avoid standing water at all times.
  8. CO2 and dry chemical extinguishers for all electrical fires where rescue is eminent and power status is unconfirmed.
  9. As a last resort, use a narrow fog stream ONLY if no other extinguishing method is available for direct rescue.
  10. When it comes to an electrical emergency, if you don’t know, don’t guess. Electricity bites.

Preparation and implementation

Proper response efforts start long before any emergency, with studying the hazards and training on them. Only then can the 10 keys be implemented to help protect firefighters on scene.

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