On March 11, I had the privilege of attending American Business Media's 56th Annual Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Awards ceremony, held at the Mandarin Oriental in New York. Established in 1955 and named after American Business Media's first managing director, the Jesse H. Neal Awards recognize and reward editorial excellence in business media. Often referred to as “the Pulitzer Prize of the business media,” winning a Neal Award is the trade publishing industry's most prestigious and sought-after editorial honor. I was thrilled and honored when they announced that EC&M had won a Jesse H. Neal Award for its investigative reporting and subsequent writing of the January 2009 cover story, “A Killer in the Ranks.” As you might recall, the feature article focused on the non-combat military deaths, injuries, and property damage that had taken place in Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003. As uncovered in the story, the shocks, fires, and electrocutions were the result of improperly grounded electrical systems. The article focused on the finger pointing taking place among the Pentagon, Congress, and military contractors, and outlined what electrical professionals were now doing to try and fix the shoddy electrical situation in Iraq.
As reported by Tom Zind, our talented freelance writer on the piece, “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 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.”
Approximately six months after this article was published, the Inspector General United States Department of Defense released a report on June 24, 2009, entitled, “Review of Electrocution Deaths in Iraq: Part I - Electrocution of Staff Sergeant Ryan D. Maseth, U.S. Army.” With respect to the death of SSG Maseth, the report found “multiple systems and organizations failed, leaving him and other U.S. service members exposed to unacceptable risk of injury or death.” It also noted, “Specifically, individuals and responsible officials underestimated the risk associated with continued, long-term use of ungrounded electrical systems in Iraqi-constructed facilities.” A second report, “Review of Electrocution Deaths in Iraq: Part II - Seventeen Incidents Apart from Staff Sergeant Ryan D. Maseth, U.S. Army,” added to these findings. “This report presents our results after reviewing the eight electrocutions involving equipment which occurred prior to Staff Sergeant Ryan D. Maseth's death in January 2008.” It went on to say, “Our examination of the eight cases at issue determined that further investigation was warranted in four cases.”
This was an important story that needed to be told in the pages of EC&M. Not only did it help us reinforce a message of safety and accountability, but it also shed light on the deficiency of one of the basic elements of good electrical design — proper bonding and grounding. Additionally, it allowed us to call attention to the 70+ master electricians that had been hired by a military contractor to assess, analyze, and correct electrical safety risks on U.S. bases in Iraq, as part of Task Force SAFE (Safety Action for Fire and Electricity). In the coming months, we hope to make contact with a handful of these “call-to-duty” electricians as they wrap up their overseas assignments. If you've worked on a SAFE inspection team, drop me a line, and I'll help you share your story with your peers.