(Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted in 2010. Please read here for an update about City Light’s contact voltage testing program in 2021).
Tragic Thanksgiving Walk
On Thanksgiving Day a 6-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer named Sammy was electrocuted after he stepped on a metal plate next to a faulty streetlight in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
The accident occurred while Sammy’s owner Lisa McKibbin and her mother Nancy Bostdorff walked him along Queen Anne Avenue North. As another dog approached, Lisa stepped aside with Sammy to let it pass.
Unfortunately, Sammy stepped on a metal plate electrified by a faulty streetlight. Here’s how Nancy described the incident on the blog, Sammy’s Big Heart:
“…my daughter stepped aside to let another dog pass and moved onto the electric plate near a lamp post. (Sammy) screamed, went into convulsions, and died.”
They took Sammy to an emergency hospital but staff there were unable to revive him.
Contact Voltage Killed Sammy
After talking with officials from Seattle City Light and doing some research, Lisa learned that contact voltage killed Sammy.
Contact voltage (sometimes called stray voltage) occurs when a streetlight “leaks” electricity due to aging infrastructure, damage, weather, improper installation, rodent activity, copper wire theft, or corrosion.
The leaking voltage can electrify metal plates, manhole covers, fire hydrants, or any other metal object near the faulty streetlight.
These electrified streetlights and nearby metal objects can produce enough voltage to seriously injure or kill humans and animals that touch them.
The chances of electrocution by stray voltage is highest in winter. That’s when the snow combines with the salt used to melt it and forms saltwater, which is a better conductor of electricity than pure water.
This is probably what happened to Sammy as the sidewalk still had snow and slush on it from a recent storm.
Contact voltage is also more likely in summer months when electricity use increases as people try to keep their houses cool.
Faulty Wiring Responsible for Sammy’s Death
A few days, after Sammy’s death, Seattle City Light issued a statement offering condolences for Sammy’s death. It also explained how the metal plate produced enough voltage to kill Sammy.
“Our crews investigated the cause. We discovered that the original installation in 2006 did not include proper grounding of the four lights. Our crews have made the necessary repairs to all these lights and tested for any potential electrical charges. There is no electrical charge to any of the lights or groundcover plates. All the streetlights are functioning.”
The explanation enraged Lisa, who told the Queen Anne View, “For four years these lights have not been grounded! Doesn’t anyone know the ABCs of electricity?”
Contact Voltage Shocked Other Seattle Dogs
After Lisa posted Sammy’s story on social media, other people in Seattle told her that contact voltage shocked their dogs.
One person told her his dog was shocked in almost the same spot the day before Sammy died:
“…….on Wednesday morning, Oslo and I walked to work due to the snow, we wanted to toss our doggie waste in the garbage a bit south of ProRobics on the east side of the Avenue. We then crossed the street and stepped onto the sidewalk right in front of ProNails.
Suddenly Oslo fell to the ground and started yelping/screaming and twisting… I fell to my knees and comforted him.
I recalled the metal plate as I looked around to see if there were any sharp items or even a grating he might have stepped on. Then I scooped him up in my arms and carried him into our store and sat with him until he stopped shaking …
Now I realize I made the unaware assumption that he just slid in the slush and off a piece of ice, and twisted his leg, when in fact, he probably received an electric shock.”
Another person told Lisa: “I’m so sorry to hear about Sammy. It turns out our Labrador was once shocked on that same block. She yelped and moved…….., but couldn’t tell what the problem was. Now we know for sure what happened.”
And a women in West Seattle said, “The day before Thanksgiving my oldest son (30) and his friend were walking my dog in West Seattle when he stepped on the same type plate and started writhing and yelping.
He fell over and my son thought he had stepped on something sharp, possibly even been scared by the cold metal on his paw. After a few moments our cocker spaniel, Max, was able to stand and they brought him home.
Since this, he has been limping when he walks a great deal. He’s also very timid when he goes for walks. After seeing the news story tonight, we knew what had made Max fall over and act so strangely.”
How to Protect Your Dog from Stray Voltage
Here are some tips from Seattle City Light regarding how you can protect your dog from stray voltage:
- When walking your pet, be aware if your pet acts strangely around any potentially energized metal equipment.
- Don’t tie your pet’s leash to a streetlight or near a handhole.
- Avoid contact with metal equipment that could be energized.
- Report any streetlights that remain on during the day or that are flickering during the evening. This could indicate a problem.
- To report a malfunctioning streetlight or a streetlight that is out, visit seattle.gov/light/streetlight.
I’ll continue to follow this story and will post additional information as I get it.