A New Breakthrough in Electrical Safety Proves Itself

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Imagine yourself with the responsibility to provide more than 50,000 amps of safe electrical power over 140 miles of distribution cable powering 5,000 lighting units, day and night, for over seven months.

Now add the following: 3,000 “practical” units will be repeatedly submerged in sea water, and, if that’s not enough, hundreds of swimmers will be in close proximity to these submerged sources while fully energized.

This was the reality set before the production crew as they embarked upon the creation of the most complex motion picture in history—Titanic.

Photo 1. The components that make up the advanced ground-fault current interrupter (GFCI) include a 40-amp single phase, 400-amp GFCI-RCMA service, and the panel mount GFCI. On the left is the panel mount 40/60-amp single or 3-phase, center is the 400-amp
Photo 1. The components that make up the advanced ground-fault current interrupter (GFCI) include a 40-amp single phase, 400-amp GFCI-RCMA service, and the panel mount GFCI. On the left is the panel mount 40/60-amp single or 3-phase, center is the 400-amp

Here is the story about a safety problem as old as harnessed electrical power itself … and about a new solution which was found and successfully executed (without executing anybody).

Back in 1986, camera operator Bill Masten and electrician Rick Prey formed a company, SMS Inc., with the slogan, “The Quiet Mobile Generator Company.” Primarily known for their award-winning NiteSun products—portable generator trucks which boomed 12k HMIs to heights of 120 ft—these two had provided necessary equipment to the production world for over a decade.

When Prey, a Navy trained electrician, worked on The Abyss, they used the electrical equipment that was available at the time, .and it scared us to death,. says Prey. He had worked on several shows involving water, and found that the equipment they needed wasn’t available. They could buy the appliances, but found that .we had protection, but not personnel protection.”

On his next assignment, Crimson Tide, Prey and gaffer Dwight Campbell realized that the equipment was still insufficient. Prey and Masten had been tinkering with ideas, and had come closer with modular devices from the Bender Corporation, when Campbell started working on Hard Rain. But the problem wasn’t solved. .It still wouldn’t pass UL standards. No standards even existed for three-phase GFCIs,” says Masten.

Prey and Masten decided to tinker away at a prototype. With sketches in hand, they went to Bender Engineering with their ideas.

Photo 2. The components that make up the advanced ground-fault current interrupter (GFCI) include a 40-amp single phase, 400-amp GFCI-RCMA service, and the panel mount. (Left to right): 3-phase GFCI for chainmotors; 200-amp GFCI single or 3-phase; 100-amp
Photo 2. The components that make up the advanced ground-fault current interrupter (GFCI) include a 40-amp single phase, 400-amp GFCI-RCMA service, and the panel mount. (Left to right): 3-phase GFCI for chainmotors; 200-amp GFCI single or 3-phase; 100-amp

PowerGuard is the most advanced single and three-phase Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) personnel protection device in the world and the only three-phase GFCI currently UL listed for personnel protection. Before Titanic it didn’t exist. Here’s how it happened.

For Masten and Prey, “Titanic was a call we had been waiting for. Cinematographer Russ Carpenter, gaffer John Buckley and rigging gaffer Mike Amorelli had less than two weeks to find a 1200-amp GFCI that would work and wouldn’t cause false tripping … nothing was available,” says Masten.

Amorelli emphasizes that, “safety was the most significant aspect of our planning for the picture. The scope of the production alone made this a fact of life. In addition to safety, director Jim Cameron wanted the highest level of reality. That meant literally hundreds of people in, around and under the water, with hundreds of lighting units. Knowing all of this, we made safety the number one concern for all of us.”

“John and Mike had to thread the eye of the needle on Titanic in regard to electrical safety,” explains Carpenter. “Because of the complexity of many of the sets, John’s crews were rigging some stages weeks before the first unit got to them. John and his team had to ascertain how to route power into sets that moved, submerged, or in some cases, literally broke apart. He had to consult with the production designer, mechanical effects supervisor, the director and those persons in charge of water distribution in order to determine what would, in even the wildest scenario, become wet or immersed. Amorelli explains that, “To meet Russ and John’s lighting requirements, we needed a combination of HMIs, incandescents, dimmers and ‘specialized’ lighting units. John and I knew that DC power would not accommodate all of our needs. Traditional methods for handling AC around water were insufficient for a project on the scale of Titanic (50,000 amps were needed for the ship alone). We needed a 1200-amp GFI.”

Photo 3. Captains of their ship: Bill Masten (left) and Rick Prey (right) in front of their NiteSun truck
Photo 3. Captains of their ship: Bill Masten (left) and Rick Prey (right) in front of their NiteSun truck

Masten and Prey figured that with Bender Corporation’s efforts on the Magnetic Levitation Train, “we had a lead,” says Prey. They thought that some of the technology could be applied to their prototype. Marcel Tremblay of Bender agreed to study their schematic. Joe Boardman, then Chris Bender in Germany, and their German lab became involved. Gary Glick at Siemens provided lab time and prototypes.

Buckley recalls that “safety was paramount throughout Titanic. Cameron insisted, and we all agreed, we couldn’t do this film without absolute safety. Approximately 350 people would be in the water. AC power was the only real choice to accomplish the task, and, of course, that had never been done on the scale with which we were dealing. Remember, the greatest amount of lighting equipment ever assembled was also subjected to the elements for over seven months. Right from the beginning, I knew that we needed fault protection devices capable of protecting circuits of twelve hundred amps. Just over two weeks before we started, nothing of that kind existed. We had to have them … period! Some people said, ‘You’re crazy to even try it.’ We turned to SMS because I knew Rick Prey and Bill Masten had built a lot of equipment. Rick listened to our .problem. and agreed to ‘try it.’”

Adds Carpenter, “On the one hand, they had to create a device which avoided serious injury to people in the water and yet wouldn’t be false tripping all the time, costing expensive down time while we waited for the systems to be reset. That dictum translated into serious research, development and testing of the new GFI systems by our team and the folks at SMS.”

Explains Joe Boardman, Bender Engineering, “Rick Prey called and told us about Titanic. We listened to the rather amazing set of problems the film would confront. The magnitude of power needed was beyond the scope of the ‘standards’ for any existing GFCIs and the harsh environment was another factor. We learned that the movie industry in general offers a singular mode of operation. It uses a wide range of voltages which often change. It combines all the facets of a large industrial site, yet it’s a highly mobile endeavor. As one crew member put it … ‘It’s like the circus without the elephants…’”

“After days of calls to countless electrical engineers,” explains Amorelli, “we concluded that while the theory was sound, no one had ever built a GFI of that size.” After we contacted SMS, “Rick and Bill tackled the problem.”

In short order, the prototype arrived in Mexico. Amorelli recalls that “after changes were made, testing was completed and we had the first ever 1200-amp GFI in the business. All totaled, SMS built twenty-eight 1200-amp GFIs, a number of 100-amp 120-volt and 100-amp 240-volt models. The PowerGuards allowed us to safely operate the most complex lighting scheme I’ve ever encountered and on the grandest scale ever attempted.”

Buckley explains that without ever “losing sight of all those cast and crew members we would have in the water when thousands of lights were sunk with the ship, we began to test. This was an anxious period for us. But it worked! I knew we could safely light Titanic in spite of the wet environment. Once, a high wind dragged a piece of heavy duty lighting equipment into the water. The PowerGuard system shut down instantly. We used over twenty of the 1200-amp units on the show. I know that they saved lives.”

Bender Corporation’s Marcel Tremblay explains their involvement. “We felt that here was a unique opportunity to work together with SMS on solutions. However, there was a limited time frame. With a sketch of the electrical distribution layout from Rick and a lot of cooperative effort between us, we developed a prototype. But it had to comply with existing and developing standards. If its sensitivity were too great, it would be tripping all the time. The goal was to have a device that could sense minute currents at the ‘let-go’ level and that would incorporate features such as an inverse time curve to prevent false tripping when used in circuits rated as high as 400 amperes. This meant literally expanding the technology envelope. The standards didn’t even mention three-phase power for personnel protection.”

The founders of SMS were just 80% “there” when the call came from Titanic. Masten explains, “Mike told us we would have 50,000 amps in water with people, in two weeks. We said, ‘We’ll try.’ The race was on for a working prototype. We had amazing help from Bender, Siemens and the Titanic crew to close the gap.”

Pressure? The prototype took eighteen months. As Titanic shoved off, PowerGuard was, at last, a reality.

Not long after the field test results were in, Bender Corporation’s staff worked out some changes until they had a unit that would provide the highest level of “people protection” ever. The system worked. Recently it has received the UL listing for personnel protection.

Adds Tremblay, “We look to the future now with the knowledge that this breakthrough will improve safety throughout the industry. New products already at hand allow the crew to check the condition of the entire electrical setup even before it is even energized.”

Necessity is most often credited for new inventions. It is ironic that RMS Titanic was credited with bring many life-saving inventions to sea travel and the world, following her tragic end. Luckily, nobody had to die on a film shoot in order to necessitate the invention of the PowerGuard.

It has been said, “Most things we will use in our daily lives, just ten years from now, have not yet been invented.” The film Titanic gave birth to a life-saving device, the PowerGuard.

Amorelli notes, “Technical breakthroughs made on this film will give directors new avenues to achieve the heightened sense of reality and greater production values demanded by today’s sophisticated audiences. I am proud to have been a part of a project where technological advances, such as the development of the 1200-amp GFI, were conceived and realized.”

What’s next for Rick Prey and Bill Masten? Currently, they are refining the equipment, and have also branched out into insulation detection for leaking equipment. This insulation detection device was recently used in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. As for the GFCI, having generated such success on Titanic, it has moved on to other features. Its list of credits reads like a seasoned veteran: Godzilla, Sphere, The Negotiator, Virus, Mafia, and EDtv.

As the Bender Engineering team said, “We are proud that PowerGuard gave those who made this wonderful film (Titanic) a safer workplace.”

For Bill Masten and Rick Prey, they agree that “Titanic has made history and made all of us who were part of its creation a part of that history … who can ask for more than that?”

About the Author

Bart Archibald is the assistant building official and electrical inspector for the town of Stratford, Connecticut, where he and his family live. He has been in the construction industry for over forty years and has been employed as an owner, general contractor, contractor, sub-contractor, apprentice, building official, assistant building official, electrical inspector. Bart currently holds licensures from the state of Connecticut, for building official, assistant building official, electrical inspector. He is also a master carpenter and licensed electrician and a member of IAEI, as well as a code compliance inspector for the Department of Veteran Affairs Specially Adapted Housing Unit for the New England region to include all of Connecticut.