Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fairfax County CERTs Get Shocking Demonstration From Dominion Power

[Editor's note: Tuesday night, severe thunderstorms swept through the D.C. area, knocking out power to over 92,000 homes. In CERT training, we learn what to do when we find hazards -- including downed electrical wires -- at a disaster scene: Don't mess with them! But what if it's your job? On July 1 (in a class also notably rescheduled due to thunderstorms), Dominion Power representatives gave a high voltage safety demonstration to CERTs. CERT Howard M. Kaye shares his recap.]

One CERT Member’s Review of Dominion Power’s High Voltage Safety Class
This was not what I was expecting. I suppose that’s good for CERT. I was expecting a classroom lecture with a PowerPoint show. We were never in a classroom: We signed in just inside the Fire Academy High Bay, then all went outside for the demonstration.

The Dominion demonstration trailer. It's hooked up to live current from the power grid. Photo: Carlos Santiso, Fairfax County CERT Class 73.
Three gentlemen from Dominion Power with a trailer full of high voltage lines, transformers, and fuses on power poles provided our class setting. They demonstrated the hazards that high voltage equipment can present in both everyday and emergency situations, as well as the safety gear that their personnel use to handle it.

A Cooking Demonstration?

They first began by demonstrating what 6,800 volts from a primary line will do to a hot dog:

Hot dog gets zapped. Video: Carlos Santiso.

The hot dog was well done with the first touch of the line, but they recooked it for any who may not have been paying attention. This was not a cooking class, so none of us were ready with relish and a bun. (How unprepared we were!)

Hot dog at the moment of ignition. Photo: Carlos Santiso.

A secondary line, we were told, would have less than 600 volts. That’s still plenty of power to zap people. Remember, that hot dog was just a metaphor for us. CERT members and non-CERT members alike could get cooked just as fast as that hot dog!

Panoramic view of the demonstration and CERT attendees. Photo: Jeffrey Katz, Volunteer Liaison, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
After the hot dog, demonstrations simulated a tree on a power line, a car hitting a pole, a ladder hitting a live wire, and other hazards, like those of improperly wired generators… Questions were asked and answered.

Reporting Problems
We were asked to report power problems by calling 866.DOM.HELP (866-466-4357) and supplying an address or pole number. The pole number, which is specific to the equipment on that pole, can be found on the band that wraps around the pole, or on a label running downward.

Any of this information may be reported, BUT don’t get dangerously close to downed or damaged lines to read those pole numbers.

CERT attendees definitely paid attention to the demonstration. Photo: Jeffrey Katz.
In fact, the Virginia High Voltage Safety Act limits how close people may legally get to these high voltage hazards. From what I understood in this class, the legal distance of 20 feet is just not safe enough! Step potential could shock you from 40 or 50 feet. Storm or accident-damaged lines could pose a hazard from overhead lines coming down or underground lines exposed upward. You can not tell that a line is dead. Only the professionals can check and determine that a damaged line is safe.

Sometimes you can't even see the hazard in broad daylight. I mentioned a situation that happened in my neighborhood a week after Snowmegeddon. A plow finally came to clear our road and pushed so much snow that it moved one of those green boxes of high voltage equipment loose from a neighbor’s lawn. A week after the storm, we got our road cleared and a power outage, to boot! But we could not see any damaged equipment or exposed wires—all we saw was snow.

My takeaway is Stay Away!

Howard M. Kaye, Fairfax County CERT Class 8, is a professional photographer in Burke. You may contact him at

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