Thursday, February 18, 2010

Heavy Snow Brought Downed Power Lines, Injuries, and Deaths

by Nick Markowitz Jr.

Here in western Pennsylvania heavy, wet snows--as much as 36 inches deep in some places--have brought down trees and electrical wires, This adverse weather brought with it the question “Who is it that owns this power line?”

Typically, during storms the fire department will respond and clear the trees and the wires if they are cable TV or telephone as these are considered safe to move, at least most of the time. The local utility is then notified so they can do a follow-up repair.
This can often bring with it trouble when the cable or Telco provider arrives. Many times it's found that someone has strung a cable, security, data, or telephone wire across a roadway to get to another structure they own. Unless permission has been previously granted by the utilities that own these poles as well as the State Department of Transportation (DOT) which regulates the roadway, these wires have been put up illegally. This brings with it a considerable amount of legislation and costs, including fines and the cost of damages that may have occurred when the line pulled free.

Many times because the act was illegal, there is no insurance coverage and the persons responsible for it become 100% responsible for the bill(s), which can be in the thousands of dollars. And if vehicles and/or telephone or power poles, even structures are damaged, then in addition the utility companies that own the poles involved can collect a monthly rent--all because someone didn't want to go through the correct process to legally cross a roadway. This can include engineering studies, permits, and having the proper insurance rider.

In addition to the lines being illegal, they are often installed improperly. Such cables must be insatlled to National Electrical Code (NEC), Article 900. NEC sets the standards by which wires must be set, such as 20 feet over a roadway. Another must is proper surge/lightning protection where the wire enters a building. So all in all, when illegal wires are finally discovered by either a survey crew or utilities as they respond to calls concerning downed wires during adverse weather or accidents, someone will pay.

All of this could have been avoided in the first place if wireless technologies where deployed to get the signal across. But since the cost of a wire is a lot cheaper, and since most people would rather deal with later, things can get really sticky. The problems of lines suspended in midair in general can be cause for concern, even when they're on privately-owned poles on private property, and this is because codes are not always followed.

I responded to an electrical emergency at a car dealership several years ago where wiring and shiny streamers where strung from pole to pole to pole to building. An employee backing up with a car struck a light post and brought down all 8 of them simply because these poles weren't properly installed. Frankly, it looked like the three stooges when I got there. Luckily no one was hurt, although some of the cars and the building where damaged to the tune of $50,000—no small sum for any business.

In this case, if NEC had been followed, damage would have been minimal. Needless to say, the insurance representative was not happy over the situation and the contractor who put up the poles is now facing litigation.

Light poles and power poles falling over from deterioration has always been a problem in this end of the State where it's often difficult and expensive to bury wires. So when traveling through western Pennsylvania during a storm, it's always a good idea to keep a close eye ahead when driving so you don't become the next victim of falling trees and wires.

And lastly, if you should ever have a wire drop on top of your vehicle during a storm, never ever get out of your vehicle. Stay put until emergency services arrive. Stepping out could get you electrocuted, but if you must exit, do so by jumping clear of the vehicle with both feet. Never do so by planting one foot on the car and the other one on the ground. This could be enough to seriously injure or kill you. Consider any wire found on the ground as energized, even if it looks like a low-voltage wire. This is because low-voltage wires can be hot with power from a high-voltage lilne comes into contact with it by falling across it.


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