The Electrical Worker online
October 2014

IBEW Trainer Raises Electrical Awareness for Emergency Personnel
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Last May, a group of Colton, Calif., firefighters were called to the scene of a commercial fire. They put out the blaze without any injuries, but an even more deadly situation soon emerged.

A ladder from the fire truck made contact with a 12,000-volt power line, sending a potentially lethal current into two firefighters at the rear of the vehicle.

Lives were on the line, but the fire crew was ready. Using information they learned in a special IBEW-NECA safety training class, they prevented the situation from becoming catastrophic.

As Energy Independence reporter Dwight Cromie reported:

"Battalion Chief Kevin Valentin emphasized that what his team learned in the electrical safety class, taught by C.J. Hamilton, instructor for the San Bernardino chapter of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (now the Electrical Training Alliance) may have saved the lives of those two critically injured men, the pipe-ladder operator and possibly the entire crew."

The other crew members approached the downed men, shuffling their feet to see if the area was energized, before pulling the injured to safety. A third firefighter, the ladder-operator, was trapped on the vehicle.

"The aerial ladder operator could feel the ladder truck buzzing, and knew he had electricity flowing around him," Battalion Chief Don Benfield wrote in a letter of thanks to Hamilton.

The operator was told to jump out of the energized zone, holding both feet together to avoid getting electrocuted, reports Cromie.

Hamilton says the fire chief called him later that week. "He told me that 'because of your class, three firefighters went to hospital instead of the morgue.'"

Hamilton, a member of San Bernardino Local 477 and former organizer, began the fire safety workshops soon after his retirement in 2009.

He gave an electrical safety awareness class for firefighters in nearby Redland, and decided that it was something the NECA & IBEW Labor Management Cooperation Committee needed to replicate.

"I want attendees to understand what electricity can do so they can avoid the hazards," he said.

Working in what is already one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, firefighters also confront live wires, utility poles and other electrical dangers.

Hired by the LMCC as its electrical safety trainer for Southern California first responders, Hamilton has trained more than 8,000 firefighters and emergency personnel throughout the state — and interest keeps growing.

The LMCC has donated nearly $1 million to the program, but offers the trainings at no charge. It's a big cost, Hamilton says, but the IBEW's and NECA's commitment to public safety makes it an important investment for both organizations.

In addition to Local 477, Riverside Local 440 is also a supporter of the trainings.

"We want people to know that we're here, and we're here to help," he said.

One of the biggest challenges in training first responders is to get them to slow down and be more cautious when dealing with live electricity, Hamilton said.

"Firefighters are taught to jump right in to dangerous situations," he said. "'Hesitate and you're dead,' they're told. But working around electricity, hesitation can be a lifesaver."

With the growing number of photovoltaic panels installed on commercial and residential buildings in California, Hamilton recently added a solar awareness class to the curriculum.

"A solar panel is energized, so we go through how to properly shut it down during an emergency," he said.

Hamilton says he hopes that the program will eventually go national, including doing "train-the-trainer" programs for NJATC instructors across the country.

"It's about safety, but it's also about building solidarity between the IBEW and emergency personnel," he said.

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San Bernardino Local 477 member C.J. Hamilton runs free workshops for emergency personal on electrical safety awareness.