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Downed power lines and step potential

Welcome to PPL Electric Utilities' Tips of the Trade for first responders. These tips are intended to help you respond safely and effectively to incidents involving electricity. Please review with your team and visit our dedicated first responder safety website for additional materials.

Step potential can be deadly!

Step potential is the voltage difference between the two feet of a person standing near an energized, grounded object. This invisible hazard can be deadly for anyone in the vicinity of a downed power line.

How step potential happens

When a power line contacts the earth, it carries electrical current into the ground. If the voltage is strong enough, the current will spread out from the point of contact. Voltage will be highest at the point of contact and will diminish with distance from that point. (Voltage levels may vary with ground conditions and the conductivity of the soil.)

If you walk across this energized area, the voltage between your feet will differ. Electricity will use your legs as a path to travel from an area of higher voltage to an area of lesser voltage, resulting in electrocution or serious injury.

The shuffle technique is key

If you are in the vicinity of a downed power line, you must make small, shuffling movements with your feet close together and in contact with the ground at all times. Do NOT take large steps and do NOT allow your heels to pass your toes. This ensures both feet remain in areas of similar voltage.

Continue shuffling until you are at a safe distance: at least 100 feet away from a downed power line. Always maintain the maximum distance possible from any downed line.

Distance is your best protection

Downed power lines can be energized even if they don’t hum or spark, and even lines that appear dead could become re-energized at any moment. If you know or even suspect that a power line is down, contact PPL Electric Utilities immediately and take these precautions:

Keep yourself and all vehicles and equipment at least 100 feet away from ALL downed power lines and any objects that may be energized.

Do NOT rescue anyone in proximity to a downed power line until the PPL Electric Utilities representative confirms the line has been de-energized.

Maintain a safety perimeter to keep the public far away from the area until PPL Electric Utilities personnel give the all clear.

To report utility emergencies, call PPL Electric Utilities at 1-800-342-5775 (1-800-DIAL-PPL) immediately. For more first responder safety information, visit ppl.e-smartresponders.com.