Seattle Streets Are Gangsta

electrocution_signage.jpg The streets of Seattle are no longer safe--for cute little dogs and fiber-optic cables. First, The Seattle Times reported today on the strange case of a dog being electrocuted as it walked down the street. A privately and legally installed street light lacked proper grounding, and the dog was zapped walking over a metal plate on the sidewalk. My condolences to Lisa Kibben, who lost her 68-pound German shorthair pointer, Sammy, in this bizarre event. The utility dispatched a crew immediately, fixed the problem, and apologized, trying to reassure the public that we (and perhaps our sub-70-pound children) are not in danger. This reminded me of the peculiar death of Jodie S. Lane in Manhattan (East Village) in 2004, walking down the street with her two dogs when one apparently received a severe shock, and Lane, unaware of what was happening, attempted to help the dogs. The dogs survived. Jodie's father, Roger M. Lane, received a massive amount of information about electrified Con Ed objects and shocks caused to people as part of a settlement. He created a Web site which showed the 31,900 objects found to cause electrical shocks between 2004 and 2009. Seattle has no such history, but you can imagine that Emerald City denizens will be skipping metal panels for a while. Second, local Seattle business site TechFlash reported that a bullet was fired into a fiber-optic cable owned by Comcast, severing access to 2,500 customers. The motivation is unknown, and the company isn't asking for a police investigation. Oddly enough, this is not the first time. A Comcast spokesperson told TechFlash, "About 13 years ago, someone shot a bullet into a main fiber line in Tacoma on New Year's Eve, knocking out service to about half the city." Man, I guess people are really angry about Comcast's attempting legal contractual modification of a peering agreement with Level 3. First they came for the fiber-optic cables, and I tweeted nothing. Photo by Photocopy, used via Creative Commons.


  1. Metal plates are a hazard here anyways, what with the rain making them little patches of slippery death most of the year.

  2. In most towns and cities, electricians who wire your home (or you, if you do it yourself) are required to follow the National Electrical Code, which is administered by the National Fire Protection Association (I think the NFPA is associated with insurance companies, but I’m not sure).

    Some do it yourselfers and even pros grumble about the code being excessively cautious. However, most of its provisions are pretty much common sense, they aren’t that hard to do, and they help to minimize hazard from electricity.

    Curiously, though, the Code doesn’t apply to the wires that supply power to your home, nor to the streetlights and other public infrastructure, nor to utility substations and similar places.

  3. This is why I wear Doc Martens. They keep me from getting electrocuted, slipping in oil and otherwise dying in a tragically random foot and/or shoe related circumstance. That, and the “bouncing soles.” Go rubber!

  4. Similar situation happened in Toronto a couple of years ago, and Toronto Hydro had to spend millions going around and checking every single metal thing attached in any way to the system and fixing anything that was leaking. When you walk around you see little lightning bolts painted on evertything – presumably to denote which ones were tested or something like that.

  5. Those plates are called handwells.

    After multiple incidents of pets and people being shocked in 2009, and despite a blitz to inspect and repair them, this past spring Toronto Hydro started a project to replace every single metal handwell in the city with new ones made out of a non-conductive concrete polymer material.

    They also have some good fact sheets about the problem and tips for pet owners.

  6. This has been a problem in Boston for years – dogs getting killed or injured when walking on electrified metal covers on the sidewalk. I think it makes the news at least once or twice a year. It’s particularly a problem where the winters are cold and salt is used on the roads, which causes corrosion of the electrical boxes and insulation.

  7. Ground electrocution is fairly common in Toronto, and I could assume that goes for anywhere in the northern cities. There have been a rash of dead dogs in Toronto and the Toronto Star newspaper did a series a couple of years ago on this ridiculousness. Apparently, electric code is indeed different underground than in your house, and combine that with the yearly tonnes of salt that is dumped on our roads… mad corrosion. We humans don’t get zapped because we wear shoes.

  8. There’s an old (likely apocryphal) phone lineman’s story about a complaint that a woman’s dog would always bark right before her phone would ring and would stop when she answered. The lineman though she was crazy until he tested and found that it happened repeatedly.

    After investigation, he found that the dog was chained to the (broken) copper ground wire from the phone pole in the back yard and every time the high voltage ring pulse came down the line the dog would bark because he was the ground and was being shocked. Once she answered the ring pulse was removed from the line and the dog would stop barking.

  9. Toronto Hydro is actually in the middle of a project to replace many (if not all) of the metal handwell covers in the city with non-conductive ones made from polymer-modified concrete. Quite a number of them in the downtown core were done over the summer.

    They even created a site about the problem and the work which has a pretty decent explanation of what to watch out for:

  10. Re the shooting of a fiber-optic cable on New Year’s Eve: in many Chicago neigborhoods there is an old, antisocial custom of stepping onto your porch at midnight on Dec. 31st and firing your pistol in the air to celebrate. I was once walking down a street at midnight and at least three people discharged guns as I went by. At least I think they were firing them into the air…. anyway, could the shot which severed the fiber in this case have been fired from the next street, and was just the spent slug finally coming to rest? It would be a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible.

  11. my friend lived in the same building as the woman who died in the east village. so sad. i remember the construction in the street.

    big metal plates, wires underneath, metal sheathing and tons of road salt and rain can be a bad combo…

  12. A few years ago I worked at Sarnoff, who was developing technology to detect stray voltage on the street. They spun it off to a company called Power Survey Corporation. I wish all city electric companies used it.

  13. The story about the dog and the phone was even better, as I heard it. The dog would bark BEFORE the phone rang. It seems the dog was indeed chained to the ground wire, which was faulty. The dog would get shocked, and would simultaneously bark and pee. The urine soaked the soil, improving the grounding enough to allow the phone to ring.

  14. Stray voltage is a terrible hazard, and we need to seriously up the penalties until this sort of thing becomes just another urban legend. But it’s hideously real, and quite often lethal, and I find it difficult to believe that the companies responsible allow it to continue. We need to set very punitive damages, with payouts for whistleblowers on discovery of new stray voltage hazards.

  15. My dog will not walk on any metal on the street, I wonder if she has gotten a wee zap in the past? It’s kind of cute, she stops dead or detours around all metal grates etc.

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