Last year, Seattle City Light’s 10th annual contact voltage survey showed that the number of streetlights emitting dangerous levels of electricity in Seattle decreased by 83% since 2010.
The utility started the testing program after a German Shorthaired Pointer named Sammy was electrocuted on Thanksgiving Day in 2010 after he stepped on a wet metal plate next to a defective streetlight in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
What is Contact Voltage?
If you’re like the majority of dog owners, you probably haven’t heard of contact voltage before. I certainly hadn’t until Sammy’s death in 2010.
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 metal objects can produce enough voltage to seriously injure or kill humans and animals that touch them.
Seattle City Light is responsible for approximately 85,000 streetlights within its 131-square mile service territory. Nearly 35,000 structures are conductive including poles, handholes and access covers.
It’s virtually impossible for Seattle City Light (or any other utility in a major city) to prevent all of them from ever giving off contact voltage.
However, many cities have found that they can significantly reduce the number of contact voltage incidents by testing its inventory of metal streetlights and plates annually and fixing any faulty streetlights they find.
Seattle City Light Initially Dismissed Concerns with Contact Voltage
Before Sammy was electrocuted, Seattle City Light didn’t have a regular streetlight testing program. And even afterwards, Superintendent Jorge Carrasco said, “We want the public to be assured that this was an isolated incident.”
The Seattle PI noted that Seattle City Light declared that Sammy’s death was an isolated incident “despite its ongoing investigation and despite other reports from dog owners with similar experiences elsewhere in the city.”
Superintendent Carrasco left Seattle City Light in 2015.
Here are a few statements from dog owners in the PI article:
“John McDowell said he had been walking his dog, Oslo, in the same Queen Anne area the day before Thanksgiving, when his dog let out a “bloodcurdling, screaming yelp” and fell to the ground with convulsions.”
“On the Queen Anne View blog, a dog owner named Marla described how her dog had yelped and “flew backwards” seemingly in shock, after peeing on a light post in Belltown.”
“The owner said she had complained to City Light and got no response. She wrote, “I wonder if it will take a child getting hurt/dying to get them to fix these?” “
“Another dog owner commented on the blog that her cocker spaniel had also been injured after stepping on metal plate in West Seattle, which caused it to yelp and writhe in pain.”
Seattle City Light Decided to Test All the City’s Streetlights
As proof began to mount that other dogs had been shocked by streetlights in different parts of the city, Seattle City Light realized Sammy’s death was not an isolated incident.
As a result, it decided to test all the metal streetlights and plates in its service area.
In May 2011, Superintendent Carrasco announced that the utility would test all the streetlights in its service area every year.
He also noted that although SCL initially we planned to do testing on a four-year cycle, “we decided that because many parts of our streetlight system have equipment that is more than forty years old, we needed to test it more frequently.”
|# of Faulty |
Testing Streetlights Annually Improves Public Safety
Last November, Seattle City Light released a report documenting its contact voltage testing for 2019.
The report shows that the number of streetlights releasing contact voltage went from 164 in 2010 to 28 in 2019.
That’s a decrease of about 83%!
These numbers clearly show Seattle City Light’s annual testing program significantly reduced the number of malfunctioning streetlights in the city.
Seattle City Light’s Joint Use and Streetlight Engineering Group issued this statement about its testing program to Seattle DogSpot:
“Seattle City Light’s contact voltage detection program demonstrates our commitment to safety, both for the public and our employees. Since the program’s inception in 2010, we’ve conducted the contact voltage survey on approximately 85,000 streetlights within our 131-square mile service territory.
We also evaluate structures, including poles, handholes, and access covers. City Light has implemented testing practices for our crews and contractors performing routine streetlight maintenance. These improvements allow us to prioritize our investments while keeping our customers and employees safe.”
Seattle City Light should be commended for testing its equipment annually and quickly fixing faulty streetlights when it finds them.
Its initial decision to test its equipment annually laid the groundwork for the drastic reduction in faulty streetlights in Seattle over the last 10 years.
And having fewer faulty streetlights in Seattle has made our sidewalks safer for both people and their dogs.
Contact Voltage is Still a Threat
Despite the success of Seattle’s streetlight testing program, it doesn’t guarantee all Seattle streetlight will never emit contact voltage.
Here are some tips from Seattle City Light’s website on how to avoid contact voltage:
- When walking your pet, be aware if your pet acts strangely around any potentially energized metal equipment;
- Avoid contact with metal equipment that could be energized;
- Don’t tie your pet’s leash to a streetlight or near a handhole;
- Report any streetlights that remain on during the day, or that flicker during the evening. This could indicate a problem;
- Always immediately report any situation you are concerned about to us by calling (206) 684-7056. After normal business hours, call (206) 684-7400.
- Click here to report a malfunctioning streetlight or a streetlight that is out.
Thank You, Sammy and Lisa
The one positive from Sammy’s death was it educated dog owners about the potential danger of contact voltage.
And although witnessing Sammy’s horrible death traumatized Lisa, she somehow found the strength to educate people (including me) about the danger contact voltage posed to dogs by starting a blog and doing multiple media interviews, including this one on the Today Show.
It also set into motion the series of events that eventually led to the creation of Seattle City Light’s streetlight testing program and improved public safety in Seattle.
Thank you, Sammy. Rest in peace.