Electrical safety problems have bedeviled deployed
U.S. military forces for many years.
Since 2008, electrocutions and electrical fires in
Southwest Asia have been front page news in the New
York Times and leading stories on CNN. Electrocutions
of deployed Soldiers were the focus of con-gressional
hearings in 2009, and the Department of Defense
Inspector General (DOD IG) conducted three investigations
the same year to determine the scope of the
problem and recommend solutions.
|Unlike devices in most other countries, most U.S.
electronic devices use 120 volts. Their plugs have two
blades (type A) or two blades and a grounding prong
A key finding of the DOD IG report on electrical
safety problems in Afghanistan was "a lack of education
for service members regarding electrical safety,
incident reporting, and personal responsibility." (This
report is available online at www.dodig.mil/SPO/Reports/D2009-SPO-005%20FINAL_web.pdf.) The
report recommends training to resolve these issues and
prevent future electrocutions, electrical shocks, and
fires. This article, which draws on the author's experience
as a safety officer in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and
Afghanistan, discusses the three most common electrical
safety issues for forces deployed in support of overseas
contingency operations: grounding, unauthorized
power strips, and different voltages.
Any safety professional or electrician who has
worked overseas will immediately highlight poor or
nonexistent grounding as the most serious electrical
safety issue facing a deployed force. U.S. military units
often occupy existing facilities that are wired to local
standards, if such standards exist. Unlike the United
States, Canada, Australia, or Western Europe, many
areas in which our troops are located have little to no
oversight to ensure electricians are qualified or certified.
Grounding, which is generally considered by
Western standards to be the most important aspect of
electrical installation and operation, is not a common
practice in many countries in Southwest Asia. This is
partly because of the poor grounding qualities of sandy
|Stripping wires and putting them into outlets is a
common method of bypassing adapters. It is illegal
and extremely dangerous.
Color coding wires, a standard procedure in Western
countries, is often ignored in Southwest Asia. In many
cases, any available wire, regardless of color, is used.
U.S. military and contractor electricians often have
difficulty determining which wire is the ungrounded,
grounded (neutral), or grounding conductor.
Actions by military personnel, usually caused by
ignorance, compound the grounding problem. These actions include snipping off grounding prongs on plugs,
cutting and splicing electrical wires, jury-rigging or
altering circuit breaker panels, and failing to properly
The 3 January 2008 electrocution of Staff Sergeant
Ryan Maseth of the 5th Special Forces Group while he
was taking a shower in the Radwaniyah Palace Base
Complex in Baghdad, Iraq, tragically highlighted the
grounding problem. The hot-water heater, installed by
Iraqi electricians before the arrival of U.S. forces, was
not grounded, and the circuit breaker panel was inoperable.
Staff Sergeant Maseth was electrocuted in the
shower when a short in the water pump electrified the
water. The stray amperage was not channeled to the
ground through a grounding wire because one was not
installed. Subsequent congressional hearings and DOD
IG reports focused attention on the problem.
Through a quickly executed contract, dozens of U.S.-trained and -certified master electricians were sent to
Iraq and Afghanistan to fix electrical deficiencies. Task
Force for Safety Actions for Fire and Electricity (TF
SAFE) in Iraq and Task Force Protecting Our Warfighters
and Electrical Resources (TF POWER) in Afghanistan
were established to provide resources, tracking,
and command attention to the problems.
The IG reports identified 19 instances of electrocution
in Southwest Asia. Although this full-court press
mitigated thousands of life-threatening electrical
hazards, the grounding problem remains. The continued
use of local electricians by subcontractors and
military units seeking ways to cut construction costs is
a problem. Soldiers who ignore electrical standards or
bypass grounds, especially in living areas, perpetuate the danger of electrocutions and fires.
Oversight by safety personnel is a partial answer to
the grounding problem, but having engaged first-line
supervisors—usually junior sergeants, who know what "wrong" looks like because they conduct unannounced
inspections of living areas—is the most effective
solution. "A First-Line Supervisor's Safety Inspection
Guide for Deployed Living and Work Areas" is a reference
published by the 101st Sustainment Brigade in
2009. It is available to download at the Army Combat
Readiness/Safety Center website at https://safety.army.mil/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=Ds2ULm5fPD4%3D&tabid=654.
|This Chinese adapter has multiple sockets.
Although these types of adapters are handy, they
are poorly constructed and easily catch fire,
despite the fuse built into the component. The fuse
in this adapter did not prevent the fire.
Unauthorized Power Strips
Although standard operating procedures in Iraq and
Afghanistan mandate the countrywide use of electrical
components approved by Underwriters Laboratories
(UL), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), or
the European Economic Community's European Conformity/Conformité Européenne (CE), poorly manufactured
power strips continue to present major fire
hazards in deployed environments.
The primary source for these unsafe power strips is
China. The China Compulsory Certification (CCC)
logo is intended to be a quality control standard. However,
electrical power strips with the CCC logo have
consistently been shown to be of poor quality and often
catch on fire. Chinese power strips are usually made of
very thin plastic, have internal metal components that
quickly loosen with use, and have extremely small wire
gauges that are unsuitable for the amperage the strip
Hundreds of fires have been caused by Chinese
power strips. When multiple high-amperage items are
plugged in, the strips often melt down and ignite a fire.
Chinese manufacturers have become skilled at counterfeiting
and applying UL and CE logos, frustrating
safety and fire professionals when procurement personnel
purchase items locally that appear to comply with
the UL or CE standards.
The primary reason U.S. military personnel purchase
and use Chinese power strips is their multiple-use
outlets. Soldiers are familiar with the National Electrical
Manufacturers Association type A and type B plugs,
the standard American two-blade plug. (Type A has no
grounding prong; type B has one.) Those who are serving
or have served in Europe are familiar with the type
C, E, and F prong-style plugs. (For an excellent summary
of plug configurations, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrical_plug.) However, the type G, or
British Standard 1363 plug, is widely used in Southwest
Asia. Soldiers are often mystified by the various
plugs and outlets.
Although the Army and Air Force Exchange Service
post exchanges carry only UL- and CE-approved
power strips and adapters, many of the outlying operating
bases and outposts have limited access to the
safe, approved versions. Unfortunately, local vendors
usually only carry the Chinese strips. Units in outlying
areas have a vested interest in keeping money flowing
through the local area, and most outposts have a small
shop or two operated by local merchants.
|Above, this is a type E or F Europlug with ground.
Types D, E, and F are very similar. Below, type G
British Standard 1363 plugs are often found in Southwest
Asia. A fuse below the red cover will blow and
protect the circuit.
Education, Training, and Oversight
The problem is twofold. As identified in the DOD
IG report, the average military member is unaware of
the different types of plugs and their capabilities and
limitations. Removing grounding prongs and plugging
110-volt equipment into a 220-volt circuit are usually
the result of ignorance, not a willful desire to break the
safety rules. In many cases, an unsatisfactory response
to the use of the unsafe Chinese power strip is, "It was
there when I got here."
The solution is similar to the grounding problem: education, training, and oversight. A proactive safety
professional, with the backing of the commander to
schedule time on the predeployment training calendar,
is the key to educating and training Soldiers. After
arriving in theater, periodic inspections by first-line
supervisors, especially in living areas, will reveal if unsafe
power strips are hidden and present a fire hazard.
This problem also can be mitigated by purchasing
and shipping UL-approved power strips and adapters
before deploying. Pre-mission planning by the unit
safety officer or staff engineer must include an assessment
of the anticipated need for electrical power strips,
which often can be met by stocking the supply CONEX
(container express) with power strips before shipment
|This non-CE certified step-up/down voltage transformer and regulator was the cause of a fire at an operating
base in Afghanistan. Procuring safe transformers is difficult since most are not CE approved and many have
counterfeit CE logos applied by Chinese manufacturers.
With the completion of the military drawdown in
Iraq, the 110 volts versus 220 volts problem has virtually
disappeared since Iraq has a 220-volt electrical
system and Soldiers in Afghanistan are usually on a
110-volt grid (even though the Afghan commercial
standard—where there is electricity—is 220 volts).
Base camps constructed by European nations usually
use the 220-volt standard, so U.S. military personnel
on those camps must be aware of the differences. Many
Soldiers discovered the hard way during their initial
deployment to Iraq that although a simple adapter will
allow one to insert a U.S. blade-style type A or B plug
into a two-prong type C, E, or F outlet, doing so can
damage the equipment plugged into it. The primary
casualties of this lack of knowledge were U.S.-built
110-volt-only printers, which were often fried by 220-volt outlets.
Virtually every unit experienced some kind of adverse
event involving 220-volt outlets; most ended up
with a smoking, burning piece of electrical equipment,
with a dumbfounded private first class standing beside
it wondering how he would explain this to the first
I personally witnessed a Soldier plug in a desktop
computer without switching the red tab on the back
from the 110 to the 220 setting. The wisp of smoke and
audible pop were the result of the fuse blowing, protecting
the machine as designed. It was quite a while
before a replacement fuse could be ordered and sent
from the United States, however, and the computer was
useless in the interim. (The Soldier who made that error
was a sergeant first class, not a private.)
The 101st Sustainment Brigade produced a 12-minute
video summarizing these electrical challenges,
which is posted at the Army Combat Readiness/Safety
Center website at https://safety.army.mil/multimedia/VIDEOLIBRARY/VideoPlayer/TabId/421/VideoId/
To prevent confusion, many units marked each outlet
with "110 V" or "220 V," but these labels or magic
marker scribbles often fade or disappear over time. In
one case, a contractor wired 220-volt service into an
outlet with the U.S. type B blade-style plug-in, which
caused a great deal of confusion and a few more fried
Step-up/down voltage transformers provide a
solution, but the primary source for these appliances
is—you guessed it—China. After electricians employed
by a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan inspected new
locally-purchased step-up/down transformers, they
were determined to be unsafe. Manufactured in China, they included a counterfeit CE logo carefully stenciled
on the side. A visit to the company website revealed
a link to the CE certificate—a handsome piece of
paper with fancy script suitable for framing. It was
counterfeit; there was no CE approval.
|Chinese power strips
are often poorly constructed
and easily catch on fire. However,
their multiuse outlet
configurations make them very
appealing. They are not UL
or CE approved and are not
allowed on U.S. military facilities
in Southwest Asia.
When an electrician checked the transformer schematic
posted on the website, he determined that the
ground was insufficient and the product presented a
serious fire and shock hazard. A Google search for "unsafe Chinese transformers" reveals a wide variety
of perspectives, with most experts advising caution
when purchasing Chinese electrical products and many
highlighting the widespread counterfeit certification
The primary solution to the 110 volts versus 220
volts problem, again, is education and training. Soldiers
must be trained on the differences between the two
electrical systems. The hazard of using adapters is a
key part of this education process, and marking outlets
is an excellent practice. Determining whether a step-up/down power transformer is suitable for use is a more
difficult problem. A blanket rule of "don't buy Chinese
products" is not feasible since most Chinese goods are
safe despite widespread publicity to the contrary in
recent years. Purchasing American-manufactured transformers
ensures excellent quality control, but they are
difficult to find because they are not in high demand in
the United States.
Most electrical safety issues in deployed environments
can be solved with education and training. U.S.
military personnel who have not been stationed overseas
do not normally have extensive exposure to different
electrical systems. Many are completely unaware
that other countries have different voltages. Few know
about UL or CE certifications. The addition of full-time
civilian safety professionals on brigade staffs creates an
excellent resource for educating and training Soldiers
on these key issues.
Training must not begin when Soldiers arrive in
theater; it must be part of the predeployment process.
Since the weeks before deployment are a blur of activity,
command emphasis may be needed to ensure that
time is set aside for electrical safety training. Periodic
refresher training sessions while deployed sustain
awareness and combat complacency. Procurement
personnel and S–4s also must be educated about the UL
and CE certification requirements because they should
be able to cut off local purchases that provide an entry
route for unsafe electrical equipment.
Last and most importantly, unannounced inspections
of living and work areas will identify unsafe practices
and eliminate unsafe electrical components. First-line
noncommissioned officer leadership and supervision,
with the continuous assistance of safety professionals,
is the key to successful mitigation of electrical fires,
shocks, and electrocutions.