Ask a Firefighter: Power line hazards are not always apparent

Ask a Firefighter: Power line hazards are not always apparent

A Stonington Borough firefighter asked us to remind residents what they need to know about downed electrical wires.

Severe weather happens year round and can seriously damage power lines, exposing people to danger. In light of recent storms, local firefighters urge residents to stay away and consider all downed wires to be energized and dangerous, including telephone, fiber optic, and cable TV wires. Understanding the hazards caused by downed wires will keep residents safe if they encounter them or notice that someone has come in contact with them.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, electrical shocks are rare, accounting for about 3 percent of all burn injures in the United States each year. But  electrical injuries have the potential to be debilitating with a high rate of mortality. They produce multisystem trauma and a wide range of complications that significantly influence quality of life. Deep-tissue burns may occur anywhere along the path an electrical current travels through the body. Internal injuries include damage to organs, bones, muscles, and nerves. Abnormal heart rhythms and cardiac arrest are possible, too.

National Grid in Rhode Island and Eversource in Connecticut recommend several safety tips to keep their customers safe. The first is to always assume that any downed power line is live and deadly. If you see a downed power line, move away from it and anything it is touching. Lines do not have to be arcing or sparking to be live, so you cannot tell if a power line is energized or not. Tree limbs, vehicles, puddles, chain link fences, guardrails, and debris may hide an electrical hazard from downed wires so stay clear of anything touching the wires.

The utilities also remind residents that the ground around power lines may be energized because of the “step potential” of electricity. Just being within 35 feet of a downed power line can cause you to be electrocuted. As you walk toward the conductor of the electricity, whether a direct downed line or a crashed vehicle upon which the wire has landed, you’re stepping into invisible rippling rings of voltage. Each step could potentially land in different voltages, and the voltage differential can then surge through your body.

Sadly, a 36-year old volunteer firefighter in North Carolina died in 2013 when he was electrocuted after stepping into the invisible rings of voltage near an energized metal storage shed. His fire department was dispatched to a vehicle fire caused by an energized downed power line after severe weather passed through the area. The power line fell across the roof of a small metal storage shed and caused the wooden support structure to arc and catch fire. The victim walked down a rain-soaked gravel and dirt driveway and knelt down to look underneath the building, where fire and smoke were emitting. An eye witness reported that he immediately fell to the ground unconscious, even though he did not actually touch the building.

If you spot an electrical hazard near you, the safest way to move away from it is to shuffle away with small steps. Keeping your feet together and on the ground at all times will minimize the potential for a strong electric shock. If you are the occupant of a car or truck that is in direct contact with a downed power line, remain in your vehicle, call 911, and warn others to stay away. Never drive over a downed line. It could cause poles or other equipment to come crashing down. Wait until the utility company has arrived and de-energized the line. The utility company will inform you when the power is terminated.

It is important to be aware of the hazards caused by down wires. Never hesitate to contact 911 to report an emergency. To learn more about electrical hazards please visit or

Jane Perkins is the fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at







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