Recently, while fighting a commercial building fire, an aerial ladder from a Colton City fire truck made contact with a 12,000-volt power line injuring three firefighters. Dwight Cromie, of Energy Independence Magazine, spoke with Battalion Chief Kevin Valentin, who was on the scene that night, about the incident. Valetin explained how an electrical safety awareness course, provided by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), saved the lives of those three men and, possibly, many more firefighters that night.
“Remember what CJ said,” they yelled. “Remember CJ’s rules.” Shouting those words in an electrical emergency is not a specific firefighter requirement, although, maybe it should be, because that night it saved lives.

On the evening of May 24, the Colton Fire Department responded to a commercial fire and set up a defensive campaign employing water monitors mounted on fire engines, as well as a ladder-pipe operation. The incident effectively concluded within 30 minutes; however, as two firefighters reloaded hoses into the bed of the ladder truck, a second disaster occurred threatening the lives of the entire crew. As the operator rotated the pipe-ladder back into service, it made contact with a 12,000-volt power line energizing the truck and surrounding area with a potentially lethal electrical current. The two firefighters at the rear of the engine were knocked to the ground suffering severe electrical injury.

Battalion Chief Kevin Valentin emphasized that what his team learned in the electrical safety class, sponsored by NECA and the IBEW and taught by CJ Hamilton, instructor for the San Bernardino chapter of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), may have saved the lives of those two critically injured men, the pipe-ladder operator and possibly the entire crew. Valentin reports they witnessed both men on the ground violently shaking. Employing a risk assessment template, they approached them cautiously by shuffling their feet in order to determine if the surrounding area was energized, a technique they learned in the class. They were able to coach one firefighter out of the zone to safety. The second firefighter lay unconscious, but they lightly swiped his boots to make sure he was not energized, grabbed him and then shuffled back.

A third firefighter, the pipe-ladder operator, was in immediate danger.

“The aerial ladder operator could feel the ladder truck buzzing, and knew he had electricity flowing around him,” Don Benfield, Battalion Chief, wrote in a citation of gratitude addressed to CJ. “Firefighters on the ground observed panic in the operator’s behavior and instructed him to jump free of the ladder truck, keep both feet together, maintain balance and bunny hop out of the threat zone.” Again, a life-saving technique taught by CJ and the NJATC team.

Historically, firefighters are trained to operate in high-risk environments, but incidents involving potentially energized equipment have always been an area of concern. Traditionally, health and safety qualifications have instructed firefighters to avoid contact with live wires when possible and to wait for the power company to arrive. The NECA, IBEW electrical awareness safety course is helping to fill the gaps that exist in training by providing first responders the knowledge of what to do, or not to do, when immediate intervention becomes necessary.

CJ said it was “shocking” to receive the phone call from Don Benfield, Battalion Chief.

“We sent a couple firefighters to the hospital this weekend,” Benfield told CJ. “Because of you and your course, we didn’t send them to the morgue.”

“It was a feeling I’ve never had before,” CJ said. “My wife and I both had tears in our eyes.”

The IBEW and NECA along with the Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC), have provided nearly $1 million in electrical safety training to thousands of firefighters and first responders across the region in an effort to protect those who protect our community.