The continuing quest to stop downtown Spokane's sidewalks from electrocuting dogs

Claire Miller and 13-year-old Labrador Dewey were both zapped by an electrified metal vault cover in downtown Spokane. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Claire Miller and 13-year-old Labrador Dewey were both zapped by an electrified metal vault cover in downtown Spokane.

At the creaky old age of 13, Dewey isn't very agile anymore. He's got bad hips. So the black Labrador retriever — a former dog-treat-box model — couldn't leap away. Instead, he froze there, on a metal vault cover on the Riverfront Park sidewalk across from Spokane City Hall.

"He just started howling in pain," says Claire Miller, girlfriend of Dewey's owner. "He was looking at us, like, help me, do something."

She could see his front paws scramble like he was trying to move forward, but his back legs had collapsed.

But as soon as she grabbed the dog, she felt exactly why he was in distress: He was being electrocuted. And she briefly was, too. Miller had been shocked a few times in her life, but this was different.

"It was like a deep, hard, hard, consistent current," she says.

Even when she got the dog off the metal cover, when her hand was three or four inches away from the cover, she says she felt a jolt of electricity.

"When we got him off, he collapsed on the sidewalk, and we just, you know, waited until his heart calmed down," Miller says. "He just stood there and was really dazed, probably for a minute, before we started walking."

Dewey survived.

"He's fine," Miller says. "He's like a lazy old dog anyway, so he's sleeping just as much as he would have before."

She alerted the city and was contacted by the streets director and a city councilmember. This sort of thing could be seen as merely a freak accident. Yet in the last two years, three different dogs have been electrocuted — one of them fatally — in downtown Spokane, sparking council legislation and streets department investigations.

PARALLEL CIRCUITS

Zach Harper's experience seemed a lot like Miller's. Last year, he told media outlets that he'd been walking his collie mix, Hank, downtown when his dog completely froze. The dog didn't yelp or scream yet died within minutes, he'd said.

The culprit, the city determined, was an aging electric deicing system that Washington Trust Bank had embedded in the sidewalk four decades earlier. When combined with deicer chemicals and melting snow, broken electric snow-melting equipment could become an invisible safety hazard.

It was a liability that the National Electrical Code mandated be fixed in the devices manufactured after 1993. But the older devices were still lurking in sidewalks underground — and the city didn't have any record of where.

In response, then-City Councilman Breean Beggs passed "Hank's Law" mandating that all outdoor snow-melting equipment and deicers be registered with the city and — if necessary — upgraded with new properly grounded safety measures.

But the electrical problem that shocked Dewey and Miller was completely different.

"Totally different," Miller says. "Which blows my mind."

After Miller reported the issue, the streets department had sent out a technician to investigate the metal cover.

"The technician, when he went out to investigate, determined there was electricity at the lid," Spokane Streets Director Clint Harris says. "He used a tool to open the lid and verified where the current was coming from."

The culprit? A mysterious stray wire.

It had been connected to the underground junction boxes used to power the street signals, and the conductive end was crudely taped off with electrical tape. Somehow, the energized wire got pinched between the side of the vault and the vault cover, sending a dangerous electric current pulsing through the lid.

The city technician removed the wire, eliminating the hazard. The trouble is, the city has no idea where the wire came from.

"It wasn't part of our infrastructure for our signal and lights," Harris says. "The wiring wasn't hooked up in a way that would be considered to be 'legal.'"

He doesn't believe anyone from the streets department installed it. Streets department employees, he says, would have ensured that the wire had been disconnected from the electricity or, at minimum, capped the conductive end safely.

"It could have been remnant of a downtown event at some point and somebody tapped into the power," city spokeswoman Marlene Feist says. But there's no way of knowing which one. It's not like the city is giving a thumbs-up to event organizers to splice into the park's underground junction boxes.

"They wouldn't have asked permission for that," she says. The remodeled Riverfront Park has dedicated — and much safer — outlets and equipment setups for local events.

Still, she says it's possible that some event organizer broke the protocol — and ended up electrocuting a dog.

"We have talked to the parks department and said, 'Hey, you need to watch what your event organizers are doing in parks,'" Feist says.

UNSOLVED MYSTERY

But in October, there had been yet another victim: His name was Teddy, a tiny Yorkipoo owned by Tod Marshall, a Gonzaga University English professor and former state poet laureate. He and his wife were walking Teddy on a slushy day through the recently opened plaza, just west of City Hall.

"Teddy stepped onto one of the covering plates and urinated on one of the lamp poles," Marshall says. "And when he did that, it was obvious something was really terribly, terribly wrong. He started yelling. ... He was in pretty dreadful pain and making awful sounds."

When his wife pulled Teddy off, the little dog bit her hand, Marshall says.

He carried Teddy home in his arms, and the dog slept the rest of the day.

click to enlarge Dewey is OK, says Claire Miller: "He's like a lazy old dog anyway, so he's sleeping just as much as he would have before." - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Dewey is OK, says Claire Miller: "He's like a lazy old dog anyway, so he's sleeping just as much as he would have before."

"Our vet said that if it pretty much didn't kill him right then, he'd be fine," Marshall says. He, too, reached out to the city to warn them.

"We pulled him off quickly, or I'm sure that it would have killed him," he wrote in an email to the city. "The city needs to look at the metal plate, the lamppost, and the possibility of arcing between them."

But when the city sent out a team to investigate the issue, they couldn't find anything amiss.

"We did check the [junction box] in the ground and the lightpost, both with the power on and off yesterday and found no sign of errant power," city engineer Mark Serbousek reported in an email thread provided to Marshall. "We also checked both the box and the light at the same time and again nothing was found."

To this day, the city doesn't know what happened.

"I suppose that either they really think that it was just a weird freak accident or they think that I'm just some weirdo that was trying to give them a pain in the neck," Marshall says.

Feist suggests that these do seem to be rare and isolated incidents — she's been with the city for decades and doesn't know if she'll ever see anything like this again.

"This just shows that wherever you have electricity, there's a danger," says Beggs, who's previously sued the city in his role as a personal injury attorney. "I think it's just straight up 'reasonable care,' as we say in the legal field. ... If you've got a hot electric box with a metal top on the sidewalk, you need to check it to make sure it's not conducting electricity."

Harris says streets department employees have been given new instructions: Actively keep watch for any stray wires or faulty electric work as they're going about their jobs, and if they see problems, fix them immediately.

But Miller thinks the city could go further to ensure the safety of its electrical system.

"I think locks on the vaults would be a great first follow-up action item," Miller says. She also thinks the city should immediately inspect all the vaults and junction boxes downtown to check for any similar concerns.

"There are all these events that are like drawing people downtown right now, which I think is great. Downtown looks awesome," Miller says. "But I mean, damn, you got to let people know, 'OK, this is gonna be a threat.'" ♦


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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...