"WACO, Texas (AP) — A pastor performing a baptism was electrocuted inside his church Sunday morning when he adjusted a nearby microphone while standing in water, a church employee said. The Rev. Kyle Lake, 33, was stepping into the baptistery as he reached out for the microphone, which produced an electric shock, said University Baptist Church community pastor Ben Dudley."
This type of death happens annually. Therefore, sound operators should be aware of potential electrical hazards associated with sound reinforcement systems. We have a responsibility for producing quality sound but also doing so in a safe environment.
Disclaimer: "Please note this article is meant to discuss safety issues with baptismal amplification. In no way is it meant to claim cause of or accuse those involved in any negligence."
How Can Audio Engineers Provide Safe Baptismal Environments?
First, a bit about how electricity works. As electrical current flows through an appliance, it moves from the hot wire into the appliance. The appliance (lamp, radio, refrigerator, etc) limits the flow of energy to what is required and then passes a lower amount of energy into the neutral wire. This neutral wire returns back to the source area such as a breaker panel. This is a natural electrical circuit. We’ll leave discussions of "Alternating current" for another time.
Ground wires carry zero current. Ground wires usually are associated with anything in a metal case like rack-mounted audio equipment. The ground is attached to the metal casing. Just like the neutral wire, the ground goes back to the source area.
A breaker works like a gate. Normally the gate is open and current flows to the equipment. But, if the current goes too high, the breaker trips. This is like closing the gate. No current travels to the equipment after the gate closes.
It s important to verify that all of your audio components are properly grounded. This is probably the most basic and most important electrical safety issue, but one that is often overlooked or intentionally subverted when a grounded outlet, or grounded extension cord is not readily available. If you do use 3-2 plug converters, find a way around them. Have proper grounded sockets installed, have proper extension cords available, have a certified electrician review your system, just do something and do it soon!
Surge Protection and GFI’s
Surge protectors are for protecting equipment, not for protecting people. A person can be killed by an electrical current of 0.05 Amps. For comparison, a 100 watt light bulb pulls about 0.8 Amps. Surge protectors stop the current when it goes above 20 amps.
The only device in standard use for limiting the current that can flow through your body is a ground fault interrupting (GFI) outlet/breaker. It’s recommended that any electrical outlets near the baptismal are replaced with GFI’s. Baptismal heaters and lights should also be placed on a GFI. GFI’s are common in new houses and are required near sinks, in laundry rooms, garages, outside, and any other areas near a water source. GFI’s are good near water sources but, if you become the path to ground, they just reduce the time you are exposed to the electricity and it still shocks you. GFI’s should never be relied on exclusively for personal protection.
Remember, when you are standing in water that’s halfway up your body, you are increasing the amount of electricity that can hit your body at one time. It’s also close to your heart. A split-second jolt to your hand is not the same as a split-second jolt to your whole body.
All cords should be inspected on a regular basis to guarantee they are in proper working order. A device like an Audio Cable Tester is a perfect device. It’s also recommended to test all new wires. One church I know of bought a bunch of new XLR mic cables and using the tester found each cable had been wired as hot-to-neutral and neutral-to-hot instead of hot-to-hot and neutral-to-neutral on the plugs.
Make sure all cords and audio equipment is put away properly. Don’t go twisting cables too tight or yanking on cords to pull out wires. Wrap cables and wires loosely and properly. If equipment is in a state-of-disrepair, pull it out of service and either fix it or replace it.
It is easy to overlook the hazards that microphones and other electrical items pose in this type of situation. Conduct a careful safety inspection of the baptistery area before your next church baptism. Make sure there are no electrical items such as microphones, decorative lights, band, or audio equipment near the baptistery.
Ways to Properly Amplify a Baptismal.
1. Yell. It’s the cheapest, safest, and easiest solution.
2. Use choir mic’s and hang them from above the baptismal. Make sure they are secure and can’t be reached.
3. Use a wireless body pack in a ziplock bag. Lapel mics and headsets are good because they should stay above water. Their associated bodypacks should get a nice ziplock seal.
4. Going a step further, buy a waterproof body pack and waterproof headset. These are common enough and usually sold as "for the active professional" which means – still works when you sweat. Also used in the aquatics fields – think of the people at Sea World.
5. A wireless-handheld on a boom…just to keep it dry to prolong the life of the microphone
What Else Can Be Done?
Go one step further and post a sign reminding baptistery users of this danger. For example:
"Before using the baptistery, please do the following:"
1. Check with sound operator for appropriate microphone usage.
2. Make sure electrical wires such as cords or decorative light are not near the water.
3. If any cords / wires are touching the water, leave immediately and contact church personel.
4. Ensure no electrical equipment is within six feet of the baptistery. This includes audio and video recording devices such as tape recorders and camcorders that must be plugged in.
5. DO NOT USE A MICROPHONE WITH AN ATTACHED CORD.
Our hearts go out to those in Waco.
If anyone has concerns about the safety and condition of their electrical system they should have an electrician or an inspector go check it out.
Download the warning sign as a word document. Right-click link and choose "save as."
Update: the discussion of the electricity carried through a microphone cable has been brought up as a point of contention. Bottom line is you must be safe around electricity and act wisely.
Update 2: Regarding the Waco incident, I received this from an audio pro in the Waco area, " What actually happened was that the heaters for the baptistery had overheated and exposed electrical components to water passing through the heater pipes. When the baptistery was filled with water and the heaters turned on, the water was electrified (AP May 5, 2006). This essentially made the pastor “ground” through the shielding of the microphone and that’s what killed him. It’s not because there was anything wrong with the microphone."