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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingMarch 20 - March 26, 2019

Downed Wires: Are They Hot or Not?

downed wires 2cc51By Randall C. Resch

With great interest I recently read an article in a Springfield, Missouri, newspaper that, after more than 18 months, the accidental death lawsuit of tow business owner and operator Ed Kammerer was nearly settled.

Kammerer died when he exited his flatbed carrier near Farm Road 112 south of Strafford on Dec. 26, 2015.

I was bothered by comments suggesting his death was possibly without fault or error on the part of other responders who were first on scene.

Kammerer owned and operated A-1 Towing for 30 years. He was an experienced tower and volunteer firefighter. Initial reports of the accident stated a motorist sheared a power pole that landed near the roadway and partially in a ditch. At the moment of impact and when the pole dropped, a second vehicle skidded to a stop near or on top of downed electrical wires.

Kammerer responded to the accident scene upon request of the Green County Sheriff's Department. He spoke directly to the male caller who explained that he and his pregnant fiancé were still sitting within their truck on top of downed wires. Kammerer told the trapped vehicle's owner to not get out of their vehicle and wait for the arrival of first responders.

He arrived and found a Greene County Sheriff's Department volunteer directing traffic. Strafford firefighters were also on scene where barricades were said to have been situated near downed wires. As this was going on, Kammerer's wife, Betty, listened to emergency radio dialogue from her scanner at home.

Newspaper accounts stated that Kammerer allegedly drove around the barricades to the vehicle located in the ditch where he didn't see downed power lines. It was reported that as he drove to position his flatbed, the carrier's overhead lightbar unknowingly snagged one of the downed wires and energized the carrier.

As Kammerer exited his carrier, electricity jolted his body the moment he stepped onto the ground. He died instantly.

Hot or Not?

In a newspaper statement, Strafford's fire chief stated, "They (electrical wires) were not throwing off sparks. No one knows why the experienced tow truck driver didn't wait to make sure the power was off and the scene was safe."

I believe that statement in itself was made to imply error on the part of the tow operator and to shun responsibility by the city and county; but it did not determine whether or not it was completely communicated to Kammerer that power was totally shut down.

Downed or exposed electrical wires do NOT have to be snapping, popping or dancing to be energized. With high-voltage electricity, you DON'T have to make direct contact with an energized source.

According to Mike Rottenberg, one of San Diego Gas & Electric's four fire coordinators and a retired command fire chief from the Santee, California, Fire Department: "Depending on the voltage, electricity can arc across 10 to 25 feet or more of 'open air.' "

Most firefighters, police officers or other first responders are NOT qualified electrical engineers capable of determining that power has since been turned off. This is especially true in small towns with volunteer firefighters and law enforcement where they may not have been thoroughly trained in high-voltage scenarios.

Remembered and Awarded

Soon after this unfortunate accident occurred, as many as 50 tow trucks and carriers attended Kammerer's funeral. In November 2016, I had the honor of presenting Betty and son Donovan with the American Towman Medal in his honor. Because of what was told to the vehicle's owner, Kammerer's instructions may have been instrumental in saving their lives.

Towers are reminded to locate a qualified, on-scene electric company representative to solidly confirm downed wires are no longer energized before commencing recovery. Treat every downed wire or electrical scenario as energized and live. Never enter a hot zone before confirming it is safe. Always treat and approach each scenario as your first: being cautious, aware and inquisitive.

Here's to you Ed ... you are truly missed.

Randall Resch is American Towman's and Tow Industry Week's Operations Editor, a former California police officer, tow business owner and retired civilian off-road instructor for Navy Special Warfare. Randall is an approved instructor for towers serving the California Highway Patrol's rotation contract. His course is approved by the California law enforcement community. He has written over 500 industry-related articles for print and on-line, is a member of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame, and, a recipient of the 2017 Dave Jones Leadership Award.
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