With heavy storm activity moving across North America, and autumn moving in, there are bound to be some downed power lines here and there. But what do you do if you see one near you? Knowing how to handle this dangerous situation is important to avoid shock and minimize fire risk. Here’s how to keep yourself and everyone else safe if you’re anywhere near a downed line.
Stay away from it
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The first thing to remember is to stay far away from a downed power line. Even if you’re not sure whether there’s power to it, the worst way to find out is getting shocked or electrocuted. If you see sparks, hear popping, and/or see smoke or flames coming from the lines or electric poles, stay inside if you can. If you’re outdoors when this happens, leave at least 30 feet of space between you and a downed or malfunctioning power line.
Investigate from a safe distance
If you hear an electric line sparking or arcing and you can’t see where it’s coming from, you should still stay inside to try and assess the damage. Look through windows, use flashlights, or communicate with others in your building or neighborhood to try and figure out the source of the problem. Contacting the utility provider or emergency personnel will be easier if you can narrow down the location of the problem, but it’s not important enough to risk shock by going outside to investigate.
If you need to evacuate your home because of a fire or other emergency, try and use an exit as far from the source of the problem as possible. If you’re already outdoors on the road or in the process of evacuating by car, don’t drive over a downed line. Cars are good sources of fuel for a sparking electrical fire. The rubber in the tires as well as the oil and fuel in the engine can help spread a fire from the source to the surrounding area. If there’s a power line in the road, back away from it and try another route—or wait for help if you can.
What to do if you’re outside
If you see a power line go down while you’re outdoors, don’t touch anything. Even touching the frame of a piece of equipment can cause shock. Move at least 30 feet away as quickly as possible. If you are in a car and a power line falls nearby, stay in the vehicle if possible. Honk your horn, turn on your flashers, and call 911 from a cell phone if you can. Since electricity can travel through the ground or even through tree branches, sheltering in place is the best choice.
Evacuate a vehicle safely
If you need to evacuate a vehicle because a power line is actively in contact with your car, or a fire has started, you will need to exit the vehicle without touching the metal frame of the door or the outside of the car. If you’re wearing bulky clothing, remove it. Best practice to avoid shock is to jump from the car to the ground without touching the vehicle and the ground at the same time. This will help avoid a shock from connecting the electrified ground to the metal vehicle.
Write down emergency numbers
Contacting emergency personnel is important in this type of emergency. In addition to 911, your local power company likely has a preferred system for reporting downed or damaged lines. Make sure to look up your local numbers and write them down in case you can’t access the internet and need to use a landline to call for help. Don’t rely on your cell phone—you may not have service in a storm.