Firefighters guard downed power line for 15 hours

Posted May 06, 2010, at 9:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12 p.m.

LEE, Maine — Downed electrical lines, Lee Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jay Crocker says, can take as little as 30 minutes to repair.

That’s why Crocker was puzzled Thursday by what he called a possible communications or planning mishap that caused firefighters to have to guard a live line for about 15 hours after it went down in heavy winds and rain on Arab Road late Monday.

Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. utility crews were in Lee when the line fell late Monday, he said, but said they had higher priorities, already had planned to fix lines elsewhere and would get to Arab Road when they could, Crocker said.

The chief didn’t believe his men were in danger, but when the arcing line was removed, they found that the 15 hours of continuous electricity, 7,200 volts, had melted gravel and rocks to form a single glassy rock 3 feet long and 8 inches deep.

A chief since 1984, Crocker said he has never seen firefighters left hanging for so long.

“I don’t know if they [Bangor Hydro] didn’t want to pay overtime or what it was,” Crocker said Thursday, sounding amused. “I wasn’t too upset about it. I just wouldn’t want it to happen too many times.”

Firefighters commonly tend to downed lines for hours, Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. spokeswoman Susan Faloon said, but the utility will assess whether its crews handled the storm improperly.

“They got to each call as quickly as they could,” she said, “but they were going through the damage in a manner that made the most sense in terms of where they were. We need to make the best time we can and get to every place we can get to safely. The more remote areas take longer to get to.”

Starting at about 4 p.m. Monday, Faloon said, the storm generated 3,666 calls about outages or downed lines. Of those, 422 were urgent — downed, sparking lines that might or did cause fires or threaten people and property.

Some repairs, such as on Ohio Street in Bangor, took five or six hours, Faloon said. All outages occurred in Penobscot County and part of Piscataquis County. No injuries were reported.

On Monday, Bangor Hydro had on duty four bucket trucks carrying a total of eight line workers and three pickup trucks carrying two planners — supervisors who prioritize damage control — and a meter technician. The supervisors and technician were called in for the storm, Faloon said.

According to Crocker’s timeline, an outage darkened Lee on Monday night. A Bangor Hydro crew from the utility’s Lincoln office arrived at about 10 p.m. and had electricity restored when the Arab Road line broke at 11:30 p.m., he said.

Bangor Hydro acknowledged the Fire Department’s report of the line break at about midnight, Crocker said. At 4:30 a.m., firefighters radioed wondering when a crew would arrive and were told that crews had gone home, he said.

Faloon said the crews were on duty, working 24 hours straight. Starting early Tuesday, Bangor Hydro assigned two more crews of four line workers each to the storm, plus a van carrying a line worker and another senior planner, she said.

According to Crocker, electricity flowing to the Arab Road line was cut when the utility crew finally arrived at about 2 p.m. Tuesday. The line was restored by 2:30 p.m., he said.

“The crew was super when they got here, but I am not sure what took so long,” Crocker said. “They were right close by. They should have just come and shut the power off.”

All outages were restored by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Faloon said.

“Given the number of calls we received and the nature of the damage that occurred, I don’t think that we were at fault in any way,” she said.

Crocker said that the Arab Road firefighters received some compensation for their patience.

The glassy rock formed by the electricity “looked like an octopus,” Crocker said. “On the outside, it was grayish-brown, like lava, and when you broke it, it was like this glassy yellow, red and blue.”

Crocker and his crew broke the rock into souvenirs and went home, he said.

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