Perhaps you're old enough to remember the country ballad that include lyrics, "I'm a lineman for the county." Chuck Tieman was once a lineman for an electric utility company in Oklahoma. He worked on power lines that carried 7,200 volts of electricity, climbed poles, and worked out of bucket trucks.
That was before the accident. He inadvertently came in contact with the line. Nothing insulates it but air, and once you contact it, there is no insulation. You're the conduit at that point, he says.
Even though he spent months recuperating and has an artificial arm, Tieman says he was one of the lucky ones. He survived the ordeal. Most who contact power lines don't make it. Burns are usually so severe it's difficult to recover.
One of the biggest problems in rural Indiana today is cars or pickups crashing into utility poles, and the pole and its wires winding up either on the vehicle or on the ground. Tieman now travels and tells his story for Indiana Statewide REMC's, explaining what to do and not do in those kinds of situations.
"As long as you stay in the vehicle, you're safe," he says. "It could be a tractor cab or a car or pickup. Unless there is immediate danger from fire, stay where you are and wait for help."
Here's the physics behind that advice. As long as you're in a rubber-tired vehicle, electricity will flow from the line that's either on the vehicle or on the ground into the ground, not through you. But the moment you step out and have one foot on the ground, yet one foot on the vehicle, you become the shortest path for the electricity to follow to get to ground. Many of these accidents are often fatal."
In extreme situations if fire is impending, you may need to jump. Never contact the ground and any part of the vehicle at the same time. If at all possible, call 911 for help if you have your cell phone, then stay put until help arrives.
Wayne Newhart, also with Indiana Statewide REMC, retired from Tipmont REMC, demonstrated the principle with Oscar, a hot dog. He places Oscar in a toy truck in the back bed. The truck hits a tiny utility pole that is connected to wires carrying real electricity. The wires fall and the ground is now 'hot.' Yes Oscar doesn't have a mark on him- as long a she stays in the truck!
The other mistake victims and first responders often make when approaching an accident scene where a car, truck, or tractor has hit a utility pole is assume that the lines now on the ground are dead," Tieman says. "Many times they're still live at that point. That's how some good Samaritans wind up getting injured or killed."