RESIDENTIAL BY DAVID SHAPIRO
Relatively speaking—and only relatively, for two families had to leave their
homes—this was an easy job and not just
because there were no injuries. It was
easy because it was a total rewire.
This is not always the case. After I’d
been researching this topic for several
weeks, I was again called in on the aftermath of a fire, though I didn’t even know
it at the time.
The call came from a service that
arranges repairs for homeowners. The
representative told me that an elderly
couple had lost their heat and asked
if I could come out that day. With the
temperature below freezing, this outage
could involve life safety.
I called the landlady first. She told me
the heat was off because the tenants had
reported the fridge smelled bad for a few
days. Today, they smelled burning. They
called 911, and firefighters had pulled
burning nonmetallic cable out of the wall
near the fridge.
This was a new ball game. Whenever
fire has been suppressed, I want to talk to
the fire department before I do anything. I
learned that the elderly couple had lost heat
(and telephone service) to only part of the
house. They had no place to move to, even
temporarily. If they had lost all of their heat,
I might have taken measures I normally
wouldn’t consider to get their heating system functioning. They still didn’t have
cooking facilities nor, I suspected, refrigeration. (Though I remember my father using
a window box for refrigeration.)
I checked with the fire department,
talking with somebody who hadn’t been
involved in the previous call. He said his
records showed “an investigation,” not a
fire. There might be soot, but if I washed
my hands after I worked, I would be OK.
This seemed rather different from what I
learned from an industrial hygienist at a
fire training program, but I’ll get to that
later this year.
I also contacted Prince George’s
County, Md., chief electrical inspector,
Robert Welborne. He has shown himself
very ready to take calls at any time of day
when they involve people’s safety or his
inspectors’ ability to do their jobs correctly. I wanted to check procedures. It
seemed likely that, if I needed to replace
cables, I should pull a permit afterward
and have my work inspected.
That showed a misunderstanding.
Welborne told me that, before I did any
replacement work, I would need to pull a
permit for the new wiring. If power had
been shut off to the building, I would also
need to provide the fire department’s
damage report before pulling the permit
and doing the work.
Later, he clarified how we would
decide what had to be replaced. If the
meter had been pulled, he would call the
fire marshal to have someone come out
and evaluate how hot different areas had
gotten, to determine whether equipment
located there had better be replaced. If
the fire suppression had involved hoses,
he would presume any dry-location cable
that had been soaked was compromised.
If the meter hadn’t been pulled, I’d be the
one to call it. (That challenge deserves its
Only after I pulled a permit, which
had to wait for the damage report if firefighters had disconnected the service,
would it be time to run the replacement
Emergencies are different. If tenants
had no heat in this otherwise habitable
home, or had unlit stairs they needed
to climb, or durable medical equipment needing juice, county law states
he could have let me get them through
the weekend and fill out the paperwork
Obviously, this was not terribly good
news for the homeowner. It was too late
to pull a permit that Friday afternoon,
so with the house remaining habitable,
I’d have to wait until Monday. Monday
morning, though, I received a call from
the homeowner saying she had gotten
somebody else to take care of it.
Maybe that meant someone else
pulled a permit and replaced the damaged cable. Maybe, though, she couldn’t
be bothered with the expense and the
time investment required to follow the
rules and found someone who would get
it working without worrying about safety
codes. Who was going to complain? The
fire department? Way too busy. The
handyman or side-jobbing electrician?
They’re just happy to make the money.
Next month, I’ll look at other jurisdictions’ procedures and go a little further.
A few months later, we’ll look at what’s
needed to keep occupants—and ourselves—safe after home fires.
In a Fix
Restoring an electrical system after a fire
SOME YEARS BACK, I was called to a home where there had been a bad fire, originating in an adjacent townhouse. The damage was primarily from the water that
prevented the house from becoming a torch. Afterward, the place was thoroughly
stripped, and then we rewired.
SHAP IRO is the author of “Old Electrical Wiring,” “Your Old Wiring,” and co-author, with W.
Creighton Schwan, of “Behind the Code.” He is a contractor, consultant, writer and local IAEI
officer in Greenbelt, Md. He can be reached at email@example.com. I S T