Report: PUD procedures not followed when firefighter shocked

Tri-City HeraldMarch 7, 2014 

— Two Benton PUD linemen failed to follow required safety procedures in a Feb. 12 incident that shocked a firefighter, according to the accident investigation report released Friday.

"Benton PUD regrets the circumstances that led up to the accident and the report shows there are important lessons to be learned from this incident," Chad Bartram, Benton Public Utility District manager, said at a special PUD Commission meeting Friday.

A power line was down and wood was smoldering in a woodpile near Game Farm Road in Finley when the PUD and Benton Fire District 1 crew arrived.

Two experienced journeyman linemen, who were trying to get the electrical situation resolved quickly for firefighters, believed the line was disconnected from a conductor on the pole east of the fire and gave an all-clear signal to firefighters, said Steve Hunter, PUD director of operations.

They could see a line hanging from the pole to the west and had made sure it was de-energized.

But they failed to see that part of an energized line apparently still was attached on the backside of the east pole as they looked through the windshield their truck, Hunter said. The overcast gray sky and trees in the background also may have made the line difficult to see, said the report.

"The root cause was they should have gotten out of the truck," Hunter said.

PUD crews are required to follow a three-step process to clear a scene. That includes identifying conditions, isolating all sources of power, testing for voltage on the conductor and grounding, Hunter said.

Firefighter Ty Schoenwald was shocked when he started to extinguish smoldering wood with a pressurized water can.

The fire crew performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation and used a defibrillator to revive him, and he was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle as a precaution.

He's back at work, but on light duty because of burns, said Fire Chief Grant Baynes.

However, Schoenwald is feeling well enough that he plans to participate in a firefighter event to climb the 69 flights of stairs in Columbia Tower in Seattle this weekend, wearing full gear. The annual event raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The two linemen have been given a week's suspension without pay, a one-month demotion and a three-year probationary period in which they could lose their job over any other safety lapse. Their work will be monitored for a year.

Both have acknowledged they failed to follow all safety procedures in the incident, Bartram said. They have solid performance records and no disciplinary history, he said.

The linemen continue to be deeply concerned about the accident and the injury to the firefighter, but the PUD determined that disciplinary action was called for because of the severity of the accident and the finding that not all safety measures were followed, according to the PUD.

After the PUD's accident investigation was completed, it was reviewed by an electrical safety expert with Electrical Safety Consultants International.

The two linemen also have committed to participating in a safety outreach program to firefighters, police and other emergency responders.

"The linemen involved can provide a valuable perspective that should be shared with others," Bartram said.

They'll discuss the accident and how it has affected their lives. PUD management and the linemen's union also will participate to share the lessons learned from the accident and discuss collaboration between utility workers and community first-responders when power lines are down.

Lessons include the importance of following procedures, including during emergencies when there is a sense of urgency, according to the PUD.

In addition, Benton PUD officials plan to meet with area fire chiefs to talk about safety response procedures.

The PUD would like its crews to determine who is in charge of emergency responders at a scene and hold a quick face-to-face safety briefing to describe the action the PUD plans to take to de-energize lines. Another quick briefing would be held after the action is taken before the all-clear is given.

The briefings could help make sure important information is not missed, according to the PUD.

"It was a near miss," Baynes said. "The challenge is to make things better as we go forward."

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