Don’t Be Shocked

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

CDE Fire

Electrical hazards are far from rare occurrences. The IAED Data Center recorded 60,672 events related to Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®) Protocol 55: Electrical Hazards during the past three years (Sept. 28, 2019–Sept. 28, 2022). The majority were assigned a BRAVO priority level (61%), followed by CHARLIE (31.66%), and then ALPHA (7.31%).

Contact with overhead power lines was the most common occupational cause of electrocutions, according to the stats, and—in a tally from the United States—about 30 people each year are killed on the job by direct contact with an overhead power line.1 The most common occupations associated with this type of fatality are tree trimmers, roofers, and painters, which is most often due to the use of a ladder, pole extension, or boom.2

Electrocution is not limited to occupational accidents, though. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 400 people are electrocuted at home each year, resulting in about 200 deaths.3 A lethal current can cause death in any of three ways: paralysis of the breathing center in the brain, paralysis of the heart, or ventricular fibrillation (uncontrolled, extremely rapid twitching of the heart muscle).4 All electrocution patients are assumed to be in cardiac arrest until breathing is verified.

“Electricity touches virtually every aspect of our lives, and through the awareness and precautions provided in the protocol, we can reduce the number of these tragic occurrences,” said Mike Thompson, Fire Protocol, Academics and Standards Expert with the IAED’s Academics, Research, and Standards Division. “It’s our job at the Academy and Priority Dispatch® to keep safety issues at the forefront of our protocol development and operational processes.”

The Priority Dispatch Systemaddresses electrical hazards in both the MPDS® and FPDS, and both protocol systems empower the emergency dispatcher to help callers, victims, responders, and bystanders by requesting and delivering critical information during a potentially hazardous electrical situation.

Power kills

High voltage is typically referred to in a range from 100 volts to 500 volts and, as a rough rule of thumb, more than 50 volts is sufficient to drive a potentially lethal current (measured in amperage) through the human body.5 The most common electrical outlet in any home is 110 volts. Industrial and power lines may carry more than 100,000 volts, and a typical lightning flash is about 300 million volts.6

Changes to Protocol 55 in FPDS v7.0 and v7.1 serve notice: Electrical current exposure is a potential hazard in the workplace, outside, and in the home brought on in potentially many ways, including faulty appliances, contact with power lines, equipment not used in a prescribed manner, and improper use of extension cords. 

Downed power lines/wires

FPDS Protocol 55: Electrical Hazard has a Sub-Chief Complaint "Power lines/Wires down" and uses the Key Question "(Suspected) Are there any power lines/wires down?" to identify cases that are not identified at Case Entry.

Four rules address downed power lines/wires, with two rules prioritizing the electrical hazard to mitigate threats and a possible fire hazard:

•    Rule 3: When more than one power line/wire is down and only one is ARCING, all power lines/wires are considered equally dangerous.
•    Rule 4: When a power line/wire is down but not ARCING, the power line/wire as well as the ground are considered dangerous because the ground can become charged (especially when wet).
•    Rule 5: Stay on Protocol 55 when a substation/distribution station fire is threatening other electrical equipment in the same location.
•    Rule 6: Stay on Protocol 55 when power lines/wires start small ground or tree fires to better address scene safety issues.

Updated PDIs added to FPDS v7.1 raise awareness of the electrical risks of downed power lines and other electrical hazards:

•    PDI-c: (Driving) Do not drive over any downed power lines/wires.
•    PDI-d: (Downed power lines/wires, Trees/Objects) Do not go near any downed power lines/wires or trees/objects that are touching power lines/wires. Keep all bystanders away from the area, if possible.
•    PDI-e: Do not go near any electrical hazard and water source, including rain-soaked or wet ground and trees/objects.
•    PDI-f: Don’t touch any people or anything that is touching the electrical hazard.
•    PDI-h: (Outside) Once clear of the electrical hazard, stay 300 feet (90 meters) away.

Two sets of Determinant Codes support KQ information and provide responders with more incident information. The first set of codes corresponds to the KQ “Is anyone (else) injured?” to delineate the type of problem for specific response and safety instructions. The second set corresponds to the Key Questions “Do you see flames or smoke?”, “Are the flames inside or outside?”, and “Is the fire threatening anything?” to identify what may be threatened by a fire (such as people, animals, or buildings). KQ information and provide responders with more incident information. The first set of codes corresponds to the KQ “Is anyone (else) injured?” to delineate the type of problem for specific response and safety instructions. The second set corresponds to the Key Questions “Do you see flames or smoke?”, “Are the flames inside or outside?”, and “Is the fire threatening anything?” to identify what may be threatened by a fire (such as people, animals, or buildings). 

Even if electric lines are not arcing or humming, fallen electric lines can electrocute when touched. Downed power lines/wires can re-energize at any time and energize other nearby objects, such as fences, water pipes, bushes and trees, buildings, and fiber optic cables.7 One inch of ice on a single span of power line weighs as much as 1,250 pounds, and that weight can bring down utility poles.

Water aggravates an electrical hazard in its role as a conductor of electricity. A person touching water who touches electricity becomes electricity’s path to the ground. Cautionary advice is stated in PDI-e about avoiding going near electrical hazards and water sources, which is particularly urgent after a storm downs power lines.

Callers should be advised against going outside to investigate downed or hanging electrical wires, because snowdrifts, tree branches, and debris can hide the potentially live wire underneath. Electricity can spread outward through the ground in a circular shape from the point of contact, creating large differences in voltage in movement from the center (increasing the distance increases the voltage).8 Touching a live wire or simply getting close to the hazard can be fatal.

Medical and police connection

Revisions in FPDS v7.1 significantly expanded and standardized safety instructions pertinent to electrical hazards and also moved up dispatch points wherever possible. For example, a DLS Link to Panel D-6, “Power Lines/Wires in Contact with Vehicle on Fire,” provides callers with important safety instructions when there are electrical wires in contact with a vehicle on fire. The police symbol in the notification bar is highlighted in case police assistance is required.

On a global level, in an upcoming version release of the FPDS, a new DLS Link will give access to expanded MPDS-approved medical instructions for serious injury related to several hazards, including electrical shock (such as unconsciousness and burn treatment) and dangerous situation/safety assessment instructions: “If it's not safe to stay where you are, leave the area immediately and wait for the firefighters (responders). If the patient is able to get up and move on their own, take them with you if you can. When the firefighters (responders) arrive, make yourself known to them and tell them exactly where the patient is located.”

An update to FPDS v7.1 identifies very early in the KQ sequence if there is someone in contact with an electrical hazard, and if so, the call is dispatched immediately after determining the presence of (other) injured persons and water involved with the hazard. Situations with a person(s) in contact with an electrical hazard will also be dispatched with new DELTA-level codes. The “All dispatch codes” send point appears after the Key Question “Is water involved with or near the hazard?”. The “Send & return to questioning” symbol gives agencies the ability to respond sooner and with the appropriate resources if injured people are involved. Two suffixes—X = Single injured person and Y = Multiple injured persons—recognize when someone or multiple people might be injured by an electrical hazard and also give fire departments the ability to differentiate responses accordingly.

Purple font in Key Questions added to FPDS v7.0 identifies a new Jurisdictionally Approved Question. The local Fire Administration/Agency determines whether these questions should be asked. For example, on Protocol 55: Electrical Hazard, the Key Question “Which electrical/power company provides service to this location?” may be used if an agency wishes to obtain that information. 


1.     Coache C. “A Better Understanding of NFPA 
70E: Comparing Electrical Fatalities in Specific Occupations.” NFPA. 2021; June 21. nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/Blogs-Landing-Page/NFPA-Today/Blog-Posts/2021/06/21/A-Better-Understanding-of-NFPA-70E-Comparing-Electrical-Fatalities-in-Specific-Occupations (accessed Sept. 23, 2022).
2.     See note 1.
3.     “May is Electrical Safety Month.” NC Electric Cooperatives. 2022; April 27. ncelectriccooperatives. com/who-we-are/spotlight/may-is-electrical-safety-month-2 (accessed Sept. 20, 2022).
4.     “Switchboards – Fatal Electric Shock: What Voltage Causes Death?” Metroid Electrical Engineering. metroid.net.au/engineering/knowledge_center/fatal-electric-shock-what-voltage-causes-death (accessed Sept. 20, 2022).
5.     See note 4.
6.     “How Powerful is Lightning?” National Weather Service. weather.gov/safety/lightning-power (accessed Sept. 21, 2022).
7.     “Working Safely Around Downed Electrical Wires.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 2018; February. osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/downed_electrical_wires.pdf (accessed Sept. 21, 2022).
8.     See note 7.