Non-combat military deaths, injuries, and property damage in Iraq are being blamed on unsafe electrical systems. While electrical pros try to fix the problems, the Pentagon, Congress, and contractors point fingers.
Of more than 4,000 U.S. military deaths recorded in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, two, in particular, have haunted the halls of Congress, corridors of the Pentagon, and boardrooms of civilian military contractors in the past year. But the names of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth and Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett haven't echoed for the usual reasons.
They weren't celebrities turned soldiers, putting a public face on the war's losses. And they didn't die combating an enemy or selflessly protecting buddies. Instead, they've gained posthumous notoriety for the indignity and incongruity of how they died: by electrocution in the course of doing mundane tasks in a war zone teeming with roadside bombs and insurgent gunfire. Maseth — a Green Beret — was electrocuted in January 2008 while showering in his Baghdad barracks; Everett was electrocuted while powerwashing a Humvee in September 2005.
Their deaths, blamed on improperly grounded electrical systems, have prompted government inquiries into military procedures for addressing non-combat safety issues in Iraq, as well as the competency and reliability of contractors working there. They've also unleashed a multi-pronged military effort to identify and fix dangerous electrical problems that could pose a similar threat to troops and civilians quartered in thousands of structures across that country.
Indeed, nearly six years into the Iraq war and occupation, it's becoming clear that upon entering Iraq, the United States occupied buildings and introduced temporary structures that had problematic electrical wiring. More significantly, it may have been lax in ensuring systems were either installed or fixed by contractors to ensure minimum safety standards. In addition to the deaths of Maseth and Everett, numerous shock-related injuries, hundreds of fires resulting in deaths, injuries, and property damage, and possibly 19 or more electrocutions (click here to see Table) are being traced to problems in facility electrical systems that may have been allowed to fester for years.
That's the grainy picture that's emerged in the wake of a July 2008 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee into electrocutions and fires caused by deficient electrical systems in Iraq and reports of internal Defense Department investigations cataloging longstanding problems. While more clarity is expected to emerge from a Defense Department Inspector General's office investigation into the circumstances surrounding Maseth's death, military sources in Iraq concede that soldiers and civilians there have been exposed to inordinate electrical safety hazards.
“We inherited buildings that were built to many different (or even non-existent) codes and standards, and the electrical for much of the containerized housing that came into the country was not installed correctly,” says Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale, the principal staff officer for resources and sustainment for Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) and head of its Task Force SAFE (Safety Action for Fire and Electricity), created last summer to assess, analyze, and correct electrical safety risks on U.S. bases in Iraq. “I definitely think that in the speed and haste of what we've done, in terms of expediting operations here, things went up fast, and quality control was maybe not as good as it should have been.”
The unscrambling begins
As much as the U.S. troop surge of 2007 served to tamp down unforeseen security challenges in Iraq, a surge of attention, expertise, and manpower is now focused on correcting overlooked or neglected electrical safety problems there. With the help of a contingent of at least 100 civilian electrical and fire protection systems inspection professionals, drawn mostly from the United States, the U.S. military is shepherding an effort to inspect some 5,000 “hardstand” buildings and some 86,000 temporary facilities. The effort, begun in earnest last October and slated to last a year or more, is aimed at identifying safety concerns, ranking them by likely imminent danger to the most people, and fixing them accordingly.
By most indications, inspection and repair teams are now working to untangle a formidable mess, with roots in existing and new electrical systems designed and installed to a mix of standards, many of which do not adequately address safety to the same degree as more rigorous codes like the National Electrical Code (NEC). As a result, many are unsafe to varying degrees, especially in light of increased demands and possible overloading after they were occupied — and scattered attempts to jerry-rig subpar systems to meet those needs.
“There's a saying that Iraqi buildings conform to a ‘seven codes, plus one’ standard — seven for the rough number of nations that built the Iraqi infrastructure over the years and applied the electrical codes of each, and the ‘plus one’ being no code whatsoever,” says Col. Jeff Gabbert, commander of the Defense Contract Management Agency - Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan as well as a SAFE member. “In many of the hardstand buildings, grounding and bonding, which of course is fundamental in most codes, is absent or inadequate. We've found many metal pipes with no bonding whatsoever.”
Yet even in cases where systems have been installed to more mainstream codes, fundamental considerations appear to have been overlooked. According to Jim Childs, a Task Force SAFE master electrician employed by a military contractor, many hardstand buildings have electrical systems employing a TT earthing system that is permitted in the British Standards, which he says dictated the construction of many Iraqi structures. In a TT system, the protective earth connection of the consumer is provided by a local connection to earth, independent of any earth connection at the generator. It is, however, uniquely unsuited to Iraq.
“The problem is to install that to the British code either a residual current device must be used, or a second method involves maintaining a permanent and reliable low-resistance ground path through the earth. That's impossible to reliably achieve in the sandy soils of Iraq,” Childs says.
Many Iraqi buildings constructed to British standards, however, do rely on such a local earth connection, Childs notes. Consequently, many of their systems are inherently unsafe, failing to deliver low enough electrical resistance to ensure correct operation of a circuit earth fault protection device and sufficient repeatability — the ability to repeatedly carry fault currents. The fix, he says, will likely entail shoring up local ground connections, where possible, and employing residual current devices.
“Local earth connections have caused a lot of the shock problems, so we're going to be focused on getting these systems up to standard,” he says.
A similar electrical standards gap exists with containerized housing units (CHUs), temporary mobile structures that are widely used as office space and housing. Grounding and other electrical safety problems have been noted in many of these structures, which have largely been assembled in other countries (and possibly to a variety of different standards), before arriving in Iraq.
“The contractors that were responsible for securing these CHUs each used the electrical code that was present in the contract let by the military contracting agency that handled them,” Gabbert says.
Some electrical safety problems can also be traced to the Iraq electrical infrastructure. Power frequency surges, combined with haphazardly designed and constructed service to buildings and substandard fixtures, are partly being blamed for hundreds of fires. Childs, who prior to joining the SAFE effort was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee working on Iraq electrical transmission system upgrades, says an unstable grid has caused power fluctuations that have a probable link to many electrical fires.
“Generators going up and down — and problems with steady voltage — have led to a lot of lighting ballast issues,” he says. “At many fire scenes, we've found ballast problems to be the cause. Part of the solution will involve putting in-line fuses to the fluorescent lighting so when there are spikes, instead of a transformer heating up the fuse will blow.”
The military is also pinning some of the blame for incidents on human factors, notably lax attention to basic electrical safety by personnel. “Housekeeping deficiencies” and widespread use of devices (such as power strips and adapters), which lack proper certification and fail to safeguard against power surges/overloading, have magnified the dangers of wiring, bonding, and grounding problems. Consequently, one of SAFE's missions is formulating a comprehensive electrical safety awareness and education campaign.
A similar effort on a macro scale may have been lacking from the earliest stages of the U.S. action in Iraq. Congressional testimony by military, government, and civilian witnesses suggest inattention or deliberate decisions made by both the military and civilian contractors may have helped create, exacerbate, and prolong unsafe electrical system conditions in buildings across Iraq. Possible explanations range from poorly drafted military contractor contracts and a lack of basic electrical expertise to chain-of-command/communications breakdowns and the “fog of war” that can render the best intentions and plans inoperable.
One military contractor, KBR, Inc., has drawn the lion's share of scrutiny for the missteps. The Houston-based company has held the contract for providing a range of services to the military in Iraq, a list that includes electrical service-related work. But its competency and performance in that capacity has been called into question.
Most notably, KBR's performance has been closely examined in connection with Maseth's electrocution. Testimony at last July's House Committee hearing investigating Iraq electrical safety, and investigations by the committee staff, raised the possibility that KBR workers may have been aware of electrical grounding problems at the Radawaniyah Palace Complex, where Maseth died, but failed to fix them.
An Army investigation determined that Maseth died when the breaker, capacitor, and internal fuse failed on an overheated, ungrounded water pump, allowing electrical current to flow through metal pipes supplying the shower. The July hearing examined allegations that a soldier who occupied Maseth's quarters prior to Maseth's arrival had been shocked in the same shower months earlier and had submitted a request to fix the problem, which would have been routed to KBR.
KBR, which is being sued by Maseth's family for wrongful death, has consistently denied any direct culpability. KBR has turned down requests for press interviews, including one from EC&M. However, it did issue the following statement to the magazine in October 2008 regarding the electrical safety issue in Iraq.
“KBR's commitment to the safety of all employees and those the company serves remains unwavering. Regarding the specific electrocutions that have been publicly identified, based on KBR's knowledge and information, KBR's activities in Iraq were not responsible for the tragic deaths of these brave soldiers. In regards to Staff Sgt. Maseth, KBR was limited to performing on-call maintenance as directed by the military at the facility where Staff Sgt. Maseth died. KBR is not aware of any link between the work the military directed KBR to perform and Staff Sgt. Maseth's death. KBR continues to perform technical inspections, at the military's direction, on all facilities serviced by KBR throughout Iraq to ensure safe and proper operations for those we serve. KBR has and will continue to fully cooperate with the government on this issue.”
But in the wake of that July hearing, where KBR representatives testified, the agency that issues and oversees military contracts slapped KBR with a Level III “corrective action request.” The Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) reportedly issued it based at least partly on its performance of electrical tasks in Iraq. Such a citation is reserved for “serious” compliance problems. As required, KBR has been developing a contract compliance plan.
One electrician speaks out
Allegations of shoddy work by KBR come as no surprise to one journeyman electrician who worked for the company in Iraq. Based on her experience as a KBR employee in Baghdad's Green Zone from July 2004 to July 2006, Debbie Crawford says KBR often lacked the electrical know-how and commitment to adequately repair and maintain electrical systems.
After learning of the electrocutions of the two soldiers, Crawford became a vocal and zealous critic of KBR. In fact, she testified at July's House committee hearing that KBR hired unqualified people to oversee and perform electrical work and largely ignored client and worker safety. In an interview with EC&M, Crawford, who quit her KBR job suffering from “exhaustion,” said a lack of urgency in addressing electrical safety problems and intolerance for those who spoke up about deficiencies permeated the KBR operation she witnessed in Iraq.
“I don't think KBR managers there had the qualifications to know they were doing substandard work — my general foreman there was not even an electrician,” says Crawford, who worked in Iraq as an electrician and had a safety issues-related desk job. “Those who pushed the issues of safety and code compliance were threatened with being sent home or to more dangerous spots like Fallujah. There was some great work done there, but the problem was the work was very inconsistent.”
If KBR was incompetent or negligent, the military may have been its unwitting enabler in some cases. At the July hearing, Tom Bruni, KBR's engineering and construction manager in Iraq, testified that KBR inspected the electrical system at the complex where Maseth was electrocuted prior to the incident and found problems. However, its maintenance contract required an explicit Army repair directive that never came.
“The February 2007 electrical inspection of this building identified a number of deficiencies and was turned over to the military,” Bruni stated. “However, the Army did not authorize KBR to repair the identified electrical deficiencies. In November 2007, at the Army's request, KBR again produced the same February 2007 inspection when the Army was evaluating increased housing needs as a result of the surge; once again, the Army did not authorize KBR to make the repairs.”
Varying interpretations of contract language have hampered a resolution. After Maseth's death, DCMA, the contract manager, reportedly concluded KBR should have made the repairs on its own. But according to July's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff investigation, DCMA quickly reversed itself and sided with KBR's interpretation.
Uncertainty over responsibility for electrical safety in Iraq comes as little surprise to Crawford. Though highly critical of KBR's role, she says she also sensed while in Iraq that the military lacked the electrical knowledge and contractor management skills that could have made a difference.
“A lack of oversight and accountability has been the main problem,” she says. “Contractors who know they won't be inspected will cut corners.”
The road ahead
With its Task Force SAFE inspection and repair plan and emerging guidelines on contractor oversight, the military says it is now focused on turning, not cutting, corners on electrical safety in Iraq. Electricians will have to be certified and assigned to appropriate tasks, work will be more rigorously designed and inspected, and repairs and new electrical will be done to accepted standards.
“The NEC has been codified as the standard for all new work, but contracts will also allow systems conforming to the British standard to be inspected to that standard rather than requiring that wiring be ripped out,” says DCMA's Gabbert.
Another element of the corrective actions will be a new “closed loop” process. When a hazard is identified or incident occurs, feedback loops will ensure leaders are informed, service order requests are completed, and re-inspections are performed, Gabbert says.
But even as military commanders in Iraq scramble to make up for expensive lost time in addressing electrical safety, the questions over what happened and why are likely only beginning. All eyes in Washington are now on the Department of Defense Inspector General's office, which is still working on a report that may help determine what led to Maseth's death, in particular. In turn, the findings may well shed more light on the source of the broader electrical safety problems in Iraq, which, because of their scope, toll, and preventability, could become a key exhibit in what is likely to be accelerating post-mortem on the country's problem-plagued occupation of Iraq.
Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidebar: Military Contracting Comes With Challenges
The Iraq electrical safety debacle exposes some of the challenges contractors face in having the U.S. military as a client, particularly in a war zone 7,000 miles from the Pentagon. Layers of bureaucracy, command protocol, and contracts can combine to put civilian contractors in the position of bearing a lot of responsibility but not enough authority. That gray area is where KBR, Inc., the Houston-based contractor at the center of the storm over responsibility for some of the problems in Iraq, finds itself. As a defense for allegations it didn't adequately address electrical system deficiencies as part of its facility maintenance obligations, the company is claiming its contract limited its authority to make key calls on fixing specific problems it discovered.
While not knowing exact details of KBR's contract, that's a claim that generally resonates with an engineer employed by a company that assesses electrical safety hazards for military installations. The engineer, who requested anonymity, says it's not uncommon for military contractors to find themselves in a no-win position.
“It looks like KBR is taking a beating from the implication that they weren't doing their job,” he says. “It's all well and good to say a company in KBR's position is responsible, but they don't usually have unlimited funding to go into a 50-year-old Iraq palace, for instance, and bring it up to U.S. electrical standards. Those kinds of things have to be funded and specified.”
While there may be legitimate questions about whether KBR obeyed the spirit, if not the letter of its contract, the engineer says the military may end up shouldering the bulk of the blame for safety problems not being addressed in a timely fashion. The reason, he says, is that military guidelines are fairly clear that the buck stops with commanding officers when it comes to non-combat safety issues on bases.
“When the Army went into Iraq and took over some of these installations — and wanted to put troops in them — there had to be close scrutiny of their safety. That responsibility fell on the commander,” he says.
Realistically, however, the military in Iraq probably lacked the electrical expertise to be able to even reliably flag potential electrical safety problems so they could be fixed.
“The commander is typically advised on issues like this by a base safety manager who should be smart on electrical safety issues,” he says. “But that's extremely lacking. Most don't have a sufficient background in rules and practices for maintaining the safety of electrical systems.”
Sidebar: Duty Calls
For much of 2008, Allan Cohen and Michael Daniels were concerned with how to save their electrical contracting businesses. Today, they're concerned with saving lives and maybe, in the process, their companies.
Cohen, who owns Alco Electrical Contracting, Hawthorne, Fla., and Daniels, owner of Current Demands, Inc., Cartersville, Ga., are two of 70 master electricians hired last fall to help the U.S. military shore up electrical systems in some 90,000 buildings in Iraq. Part of the military's Task Force SAFE inspection teams, the two are using their extensive electrical knowledge to identify unsafe electrical systems that have caused electrocutions, injuries, and fires. For both men, their new jobs are a source of patriotic pride and compensation reportedly upward of $80 an hour that they hope will help keep their companies and families afloat during challenging times. Cohen, 54, watched income from his 10-year-old residential/commercial business dry up last year, and his own finances grow more desperate.
“The economy was bad, and we hadn't gotten much work, so I posted my resume on monster.com in September,” he said last fall. “The same day, I got a reply from Stanley Consultants, the company hiring master electricians for Iraq.”
For Daniels, 38, the call came within minutes of e-mailing Stanley his resume after learning of the openings from his brother. Like Cohen's, Daniels' business was edging toward trouble, and he was looking at Plan B.
“I was having my morning coffee and four minutes after sending the resume I'm on the phone with someone in Iraq asking me if I had a master's license,” he says. “I said I did, she explained the opportunity, I said I was interested, and she asked me what size helmet and flak jacket I wore. I said ‘extra thick.’”
As they awaited deployment to Iraq last October, both said they were excited at the chance to serve in a rewarding new capacity.
“It's an honor for me to assist in this effort, and I feel I can help make a difference,” says Cohen, whose wife, Carmen, planned to continue running the business. “This will also give us a chance to get back on track financially.”
Daniels, who also plans to continue running his business from afar with his wife's help, says the unsafe conditions in Iraq hit a nerve because his brother is a soldier.
“It was eating me alive to see our guys getting hurt and killed on our bases there,” he says. “Bottom line, we've got to make it safer.”