There’s one thing Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Veronie Steele-Small says she won’t forget: responding to fires at illegal indoor pot farms, or “grow houses,” is deadly serious business.
Illegal marijuana-growing operations, which can be electrical houses of horror, were among the many electrical hazards Steele-Small learned about at a recent electrical safety class for first responders held in Covina.
The class, taught by Scott Brown, a fire management officer for Southern California Edison (SCE), is held at a number of fire stations throughout the utility’s 50,000-square-mile service territory each year.
Showing photos of attics and basements full of tangled, jerry-rigged wiring used to power special lighting, watering and air-filtration systems, Brown told the class: “If you are out on a call and you see that it’s a grow house, you need to make sure that everyone on that call knows it because there are things in there that can kill you.”
One of the major dangers posed by grow houses is that illegal pot growers are notorious for stealing power from utilities. To do so, they bypass meters and circuit breakers — which means firefighters can still get electrocuted even though they have shut off the power at the main panel.
Pointing to a picture of an unauthorized power line, Brown said, “This is energized — 240 volts. So you can imagine feeling your way around during a fire in the dark when it’s smoky and you’re soaking wet. If you get your hand on something like that, you’re going to take current through your body.”
California law enforcement authorities uncover a few hundred grow houses every year. Responding to a fire can be tricky because they often look like any other house in a residential neighborhood, hiding the dangers that lurk inside. Steele-Small says that added risk means exercising extra caution when responding to fires at grow houses.
“Ordinarily when we respond to a house fire, we want to get in there really fast, and if there’s anyone inside, we want to get them out,” Steele-Small said. “But when we approach a house where marijuana is being grown, it’s important that we assess the whole area first because we can’t electrocute one of our own guys in our haste to help.”
The class also addresses a number of newer electrical hazards beyond grow houses that may not have been an issue just a few years ago. These new hazards require strategic assessment of a situation before rushing in to extinguish flames and save lives.
In recent years, tens of thousands of homeowners in Southern California have installed solar on their rooftops and, working with SCE, they are now connected to the grid. Having these installations on rooftops can complicate access for firefighters.
“When you shut off solar, you’re only breaking the tie to the utility,” Brown told the class. “If there’s light, the solar panel is still producing electricity, and the only way you’re ever going to stop a panel is to cover it.”
When properly installed and connected to the grid, these systems have safeguards in place to protect first responders, but not every installation is guaranteed safe. Do-it-yourself solar panels, which may be installed improperly, causing backfeed, or electric current flowing in reverse direction from the house onto power lines, could cause electrocution.
Brown urges the class, “If you see a solar panel on a roof that looks improperly installed, call Southern California Edison at 800-655-4555.”
During the two-hour session, Brown gave first responders dozens more practical tips for avoiding electrical hazards, such as:
- Always assume that a downed power line is live.
- Watch for live wires that may be camouflaged in high-vegetation areas.
- Never touch objects that are in contact with a downed wire, including sign posts, metal fences, pools of water or even wood if it’s wet or dirty.
Regardless of the situation, Brown’s message to firefighters and other first responders: “When it comes to high voltage, rely on the experts. Our troublemen are able to de-energize any line for you at any time. Just call us and tell us what you need, and we’ll be racing to get to you.