Better downed power line detection is not a fantasy request

Power companies can better monitor for downed power lines. If they already did this, two Texas brothers never would have been electrocuted

Downed power lines

It’s been a rough March and April across the U.S. From Michigan to Georgia, and from Kentucky to Nebraska, wild wind storms have resulted in downed power lines. Weather, combined with inadequate maintenance of powerlines, is the most common reason I’ve found as an electrocution lawyer for many of the deaths caused every year by downed power lines. These two create a deadly combination that leave people extremely vulnerable after extreme weather events.

Tragically, two young brothers, 11 and 12, became another electrocution statistic. Both were electrocuted at a Fort Worth, Texas, park that was open following severe storms.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Weather was just one of the horrifying reasons for why these two boys were electrocuted.

The city’s parks and recreation director said the park was a “high-priority” area for officials checking for downed power lines. Yet, he said city workers hadn’t come across the power lines that killed the brothers. The lines were in a “very remote,” low-traffic area, “beyond the developed area of the parkland.”

And when the power lines — which may have been hidden by overgrown brush — started a fire, firefighters at the scene had no way of reaching the brothers.

Power line company excuses: Too many downed power lines, too little time

But is this true? Often in my own lawsuits representing the victims of electrocution, it is hard for families to hear about these tragedies, but it’s even worse for these families to hear the defense lawyers for the power company argue that it could only do so much.

Officials with the Fort Worth utility said they don’t have a way to tell when specific power lines are down — only where any outages are located. Instead, they must patrol neighborhoods to find the damaged line. Apparently, officials are saying there were too many power lines that came down March 29, and utility workers just didn’t get to the park’s downed line before it was too late.

Parks are considered “high-priority” areas for checking downed power lines. That means utility workers should be dispatched immediately.

Children go to parks to play. And children tend to play in more than just the park’s most crowded areas.

The real solution to stop electrocutions from downed power lines

The deadly combination of inadequate maintenance and infrastructure spending with predictable extreme weather that I wrote about above is itself something that can be fixed.

As an attorney who has devoted my 43-year legal career to helping families whose lives have been turned upside down by electrocution-related deaths and tragedies, I’ve long called out utility companies for their lack of movement to overhaul their aging power distribution infrastructure —including poles, crossarms, insulators and poletop hardware.

But when it comes to the deadly combination above, it’s the administrative infrastructure that needs just as much work as the aging infrastructure in many older American cities and towns.

Today, power company engineers can upgrade their distribution systems with smart grid technologies. These include intelligent sensors, processors and communication devices, a combination of which would produce a Holy Grail of Safety — a “distribution intelligence” system that can incorporate ground fault detection systems. This nearly eliminates the risk of serious injury and death from encounters with undetected downed power lines.

This is the direction in which the utilities and power companies will evolve, and the market for “distribution intelligence” is already enormous.

In the meantime, the best preventive measures available to all utilities today are to keep powerlines high in the air where they belong after a storm; to adhere diligently to prudent inspection protocols (often skipped or disregarded), tree clearance (often disregarded), maintenance and repair schedules (again, often disregarded); and to periodically replace components that are prone to failure (dangerously falling decades behind in many American towns and cities today).

Electrocution cases are difficult, but the lawyers that take on these difficult cases must do a better job of recognizing and separating out the excuses that are made from clear acts of negligence.

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