Best safety practices for handling fallen power lines obstructing roads following an outage (power off)

Standard advice (understandably) is never touch a power line, no matter the circumstances.

However, many people following big storms, like the ones in Northern California that downed a lot of lines just yesterday, do in fact handle dead lines to clear them from the road so they can get somewhere they need to go.

I imagine the best practice is to hold tight if possible and not attempt any handling, even if you feel certain the lines are dead.

But if there is an emergency, and a person did have to move/cut/etc dead (or live) power lines, are there any guides on best practices?

Both advice during outages where the lines are dead, as well as live wire situations, are welcome. Thanks.


  • Comments (6)

    • 2

      too dangerous to touch live cables, turn round and find another route.

    • 2

      Never touch a down power line. Never approach a down power line. The ground may be energized. Shocks and electrocution occur due to a voltage differential, this is why birds can sit on a power line and not be harmed, there is no place for the energy to travel. If the ground is energized the voltage will be highest closer to the powerline, and taper as distance for the energy source is increased. That means if you are walking toward or away from the power line the voltage under one foot will be higher than the voltage under the other foot. Thus a voltage differential. That means the power will pass through you from one foot to the other. This is potentially deadly and invisible danger. if you are near a downed power line the safest place to be is in your vehicle, which will act as a faraday cage to protect you from the voltage and isolate the vehicle from the ground via the rubber tires. 

      Even if the powerline is currently dead it could become energized at any moment with no warning. DO NOT TOUCH a downed powerline EVER!

    • 2

      First disclaimer, I am no electrician or otherwise certified source for this type of information. As justinsane stated, messing with power lines is extremely dangerous.

      First law of electricity: Live wires look just like dead wires. (College joke but it’s still true). So how did those folks actually know the wires were not electrically energized and therefore safe to move? Sometimes you can see that a wire is live as it’s arcing or sparking. That is definitely not always the case. Does your electrical outlet look like it’s energized? Nope – and it doesn’t if the power is off ether. Or if you open it up and take it apart.  

      As justinsane mentions, electricity is invisibly moving electrons that seek the lowest potential – the Earth is the lowest. If the wire is live, the source of electrons doesn’t get exhausted (unlike the small shocks from a sweater in the winter) and the ground will stay energized. Dry ground will be a comparatively smaller area (not necessarily small though), but if it’s raining and the ground is wet that area can be huge and quite surprising in its reach (energized water doesn’t look energized either). The size of the dangerous energized area depends on many factors.

      I agree with lonewolf and justinsane, stay away unless absolutely imperative – like you are remote and someone is actively getting shocked. Always assume the wire is live/energized and consider how to protect yourself first. Two victims don’t help the situation. Stay as electrically insulated as possible: move it with your car (see justinsane’s post) – but be aware your car may hold a charge afterwards and you’ll be the conduit to ground when exiting – open the door then jump as far away from the vehicle as possible in one fell swoop – not a hand on the door and a foot on the ground as you may typically do. It still may not be far enough – this is a risk you’re taking to help the person. Use the longest dry wooden stick as possible and ensure you’re on an electrically insulating material – rubber boots, dry wood. Rain makes it even more dangerous as everything will be or get wet.  Be sure that where you move the wire TO is isolated electrically from you and the victim which may be a difficult place to find.    

      The other thing to consider is that it’s sometimes not easy to identify that a person is getting shocked/electrocuted because the source of the electricity is distant or not obvious. Too many times, I’ve seen a news story of someone dying of electrical shock and a second person also succumbing to it as they went to help not realizing the danger. The first victim may look to be having a heart attack or already unconscious.

      • 2

        Another piece of advice I learned from an electrician: first touch of a wire should be with the back of your fingers as the electricity will make the muscles contract. If that happens because the wire is actually live, your hand will close away from the wire. If you used the palm side of your hand or fingers, the electricity will close your hand onto the live wire making it difficult to break the connection.

    • 3

      Just asked, hubby, who’s a retired journeyman/lineman.  Yikes!  You’re taking a huge risk trying to handle a downed line.  He has plenthy of anecdotes to tell of people being killed.

      He said that local outages would be the most dangerous because you don’t know if the downed line is touching something that is still hot, but even in more widespread outages, there are too many unknowns.  Possibly the most dangerous is the homeowner who incorrectly hooks his generator up and the power backfeeds through the transformer and re-energizes the line.

      You don’t know if a line crew is out testing sections of line and to do that they re-energize it.

      If there is an absolute unavoidable need to move the cable, pick a pole or stick at least 5-6 feet long to do so and make sure there is no paint on it.  The paint may be a conductor.

      His most earnest advice is