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Firefighters and Utility Poles

This letter is for Joseph Cunningham, author of the “History” article “AC Pioneer” that appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine (vol, 11, no. 3, pp. 84–98). When my copy of the magazine arrived in my mailbox, I, of course, turned first to Joe’s article, which describes so well the early history of the United Electric Light & Power Co. and the development of ac power distribution in New York City. One of the features that caught my eye was that, from the early 1890s onward, the proliferation of very tall utility poles with six, and sometimes as many as eight, crossarms carrying a tangle of telegraph, telephone, and open-conductor power distribution circuits had already been banned in favor of underground conduits. This was apparently because of the difficulty these open circuits caused firefighters and their ladders.

figure 1. The Toronto business center after the fire of 19 April 1904.

figure 1. The Toronto business center after the fire of 19 April 1904.

It just so happens that here in Toronto, Ontario, our much respected paper, the Globe and Mail, publishes a piece each morning describing some event that took place on that same day many years previously. By coincidence, on 19 April of this year, it carried a piece about a huge fire that gutted 20 acres of the downtown business center of Toronto on 19 April 1904, despite the fact that extra firefighters were rushed in by express train from surrounding cities. The accompanying photograph published in the Globe and Mail shows the extent of the devastation (Figure 1). It seems that in the subsequent review, in addition to inadequate water pressure, two additional difficulties were identified: 1) a web of electric wires prevented the firefighters from placing their ladders against the upper floors of buildings and 2) the comparatively new feature of elevator shafts acting as chimneys inside the buildings. And, alas, I suppose we have to recognize that the elevators were electrically driven. But fortunately there were no fatalities in a fire that was the largest in Toronto since 1849. It is too bad that Toronto hadn’t followed the example of New York.

Keep up the good work.

—David E. Hepburn

Author’s Response

Mr. Hepburn raises a valid point, but I don’t have any data that indicates that firefighter access to buildings was the reason that New York City became an underground system. Overhead lines were outlawed after the blizzard of March 1888 in which live 2,000-V arc light cables fell to the street and then energized snow drifts. There was no fault current detection in those days. New York City soon ordered the removal of the lines. Many of the companies balked, and some even threatened or initiated litigation. Finally, the mayor ordered deputies out to chop the live lines to the street.

The United Electric Light & Power Company issued a challenge to the Edison Company in 1890 in promotion of its ac lighting systems. Published in newspapers, it was identified as an underground system. Early United histories indicate that the 133-Hz lines were overhead in 1889, so the decision to go underground must have anticipated the ordinance by the city to abolish overhead line systems.

While I have never seen anything specifically on firefighter safety in regard to power lines and the United Company, most outdoor electric signs, especially those with high-voltage transformers for gas discharge “neon” signs, featured a “fireman’s switch” that would de-energize the line on the primary side to prevent a backfeed of power through the water from fire hoses. It could very well be that a prior concern initiated that requirement. Electric signs are very tightly regulated in New York City, and many small proprietors choose to place lighted signs either inside the show window or use a nonelectric sign with floodlight illumination.

Thus the reason was the city’s reaction to complaints about the wires that darkened the sky and threatened public safety, the issue brought to a head by the blizzard of 1888. Firefighter safety may have been an issue as well, but that was not primary so far as written accounts are concerned.

—Joseph J. Cunningham

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