It's not often that the National Electrical Code (NEC) gets a requirement aimed at protecting an individual exposed to electrical hazards under the most extreme worst-case scenario. After all, the purpose of the NEC is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from the hazards arising from the use of electricity; practical safeguarding meaning that the NEC isn’t really intended to protect in the event of something like a natural disaster or other unforeseen emergency situation. Then came the 2020 edition of the NEC and the new section 230.85. It requires an emergency disconnect to be installed in a readily accessible location on the outside of one- and two-family homes.
This new requirement is really the product of multiple electrical industry experts coming together to solve a problem. And, it's one of the best examples I’ve seen in recent years of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem in action. I had the great opportunity to sit down recently with Matt Paiss, the International Association of Fire Fighters principal representative on Code Making Panel 4 and the driver behind this specific change. We were joined by NFPA Board of Directors’ member, Kwame Cooper, a retired assistant fire chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Watch our interview below. As you listen, you'll see how this change came to be, how this revision process truly demonstrates the essence of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, and brings the true meaning of collaboration, to light.
In case you weren't aware, this change was actually recognized during the 2017 revision process - there was a problem with the current standard of practice when it came to emergency responders who were responding to emergencies at dwelling units. Mainly, the issue revolved around how best to kill power to the building to begin dealing appropriately to the emergency, such as a house fire.The options were:
- Pull the meter
- Wait for the utility company to come disconnect the power
- Leave the power on and try to be careful
All of these options have their own drawbacks for emergency personnel. For most emergency responders, the thought of pulling the meter on their own was out of the question as most responders lack the qualification to safely perform this task. Plus, even after the meter is out, there are still exposed live parts on the line side of the meter that still present a shock hazard. So, in many parts of the country this option was not an option. This left emergency personnel, such as firefighters, with just two options. Either they could take their chances and start the process with the wiring system still energized, or wait for the utility company to show up. However, electrical utilities do not have the same response time requirements and often can take hours to be on site to disconnect power. If a home is on fire, every second counts and by the time the power company arrives, the home could be a total loss. This left many emergency personnel with the only realistic option of doing their job while still being exposed to electrical hazards.
The approach that was originally proposed as a part of the 2017 revision cycle was to require the service disconnecting means to be installed outside of the home or some other way to remotely operate the service disconnect from the outside of the home. This was met with very strong opposition and skepticism as many felt that requiring the service equipment to be outside would not be viable in certain parts of the country, and, a remote operating device might not be operable when needed, for instance, if the control wiring were to be damaged in the fire. This led to the various sides of the discussion being brought back to the table in between cycles to figure out a way to address the concerns. It was also important to find a way that emergency responders could safely disconnect the power from the home and do their job without fear of being shocked.
I’m really pleased to say that the final outcome of all of these discussions has left installers and home builders with solid options of how the process can be done. It's also our hope that it’ll bring peace of mind to the emergency response community.
As this requirement evolves over the next few cycles, it will be interesting to track the data and see the positive impact on the safety of first responders that this revision brings to the table. After all, we depend on this community every day to keep us safe from a whole list of hazards; it’s time we return the favor and do our part to protect them.