Mike Wilbur

Aerial Operations and Power Lines

Most, if not all, communities that have aerial devices in their fire departments also have electric power lines on poles in front of the very buildings where the fire department will operate those aerial devices.  The bottom line is that if we are going to get any use out of our aerial devices, we will have to learn how to operate those aerial devices safely around power lines.

(1) Firefighters in the Great Barrington Fire Department position the aerial tower under and past power lines to operate safely during this training exercise. (Photos courtesy of author.)

Like most firefighters, I have a limited knowledge of electricity. The lower two wires on the pole are generally for cable TV and telephone.  The higher on the pole the electric wires are, the more power they carry and the less insulation there is on those wires. I was taught to stay far away from anything long, black, and slinky that fell off a pole. The problem is that the information firefighters have is somewhat limited at best and nonexistent at worst. Also, the power companies in our country are fragmented much like the fire service.  Some power companies are privately owned, others are publicly owned co-ops, and still others are run by the municipalities in which they are located. In some other countries, the fire service seems to have a better handle on the problem: It worked with the power companies on a color-coding system for utility poles. A colored strip on the pole identifies the pole as carrying a certain amount of power. The aerial apparatus operator would check the color against a chart onboard the apparatus that specifies the distance from the power lines at which it would be safe to operate aerial devices.

The chart below lists the minimum safe distances that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends when operating aerial apparatus where power lines are present.

Table 1. Minimum Distance of Aerial Devices from

Energized Electrical Sources


Kilovolts (kV)





Minimum Distance of Aerial Device

0 to 50 0 to 50,000 10 feet
      60  60,000 10 feet, 4 inches
      70   70,000 10 feet, 8 inches
       80   80,000 11 feet
       90  90,000 11 feet, 4 inches
      100  100,000 11 feet, 8 inches
                 110 110,000 12 feet
     120 120,000 12 feet, 4 inches
     130 130,000 12 feet, 8 inches
     140 140,000 13 feet
     150 150,000 13 feet, 4 inches

Source: OSHA 1910.269 Electrical Power Generation and Transmission and Distribution Systems

How big of a problem is it? How many fire departments are running their aerial equipment into power lines?  The answer is shocking. How about an average of once a month? What is even more shocking is the number of aerial devices being run into power lines on the apparatus aprons during the morning apparatus check. Apparatus operators doing morning apparatus checks in California, South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia all have suffered this fate recently. Luckily. no firefighters were killed in these truck-check incidents. However, complacency kills. It would make more sense, or at least offer a plausible explanation, if these incidents occurred at working fires with the smoke and heat, excitement, and the adrenalin rush. However, when you bring the apparatus out onto the apron as you have done a hundred times before and run the aerial device into the power lines during an aerial apparatus check, there is no good explanation for that behavior.

(2) This aerial device is striking power lines, lighting up the night sky.

(3) This morning aerial apparatus check does not go well.

Complacency Kills!

How can we fix the problem? Proximity sensors is one idea that comes to mind. They warn aerial operators as they approach the electric field around power lines. The idea sounds simple, but nothing in the fire service is ever simple. It’s true that this technology already exists, and that is good. However, the sensors are very sensitive, you would have to calibrate them often, and they could not survive the rigors of fire service use in their present form. The reality is that the proximity sensors would have to work in smoke, heat, and water. They would have to work in Tucson, Arizona, in August and in Anchorage, Alaska, in January. That technology does not exist yet. Several companies are working on it, but they will not be ready to bring the sensors to the fire service market anytime soon.

Working with local power companies is an option. In my area, they offer training programs they will bring to local fire department stations at no cost. This initial training could lead to a dialogue with the power company officials to about identifying for the department the different distribution systems within its area and providing safety guidelines for using aerial equipment around these systems.

Situational awareness and operational awareness are crucial when positioning and operating aerial apparatus around power lines.  There is no substitute for good trainingprograms. Do not let your guard down. Unsafe operation of the aerial apparatus could kill you.


Michael Wilbur has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years and a career firefighter for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) for 32 years; he retired as a lieutenant from Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx. Previously, he served on Ladder Company 56 and on the FDNY apparatus purchasing committee. He guided the FDNY chauffeurs school through state certification. He has been published in fire service publications, served on the IFSTA validation committees for the Apparatus Operator and Aerial Operator manuals, and on the U.S. Fire Administration committees on Safe Operation of Fire Tankers and Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative. His expertise in emergency vehicle operations, apparatus placement, and apparatus purchasing is nationally recognized.


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