One bright blue-sky Tuesday morning 15 years ago this month, the world changed forever in four blinks of an eye. Most Americans could only stare and weep, transfixed to TV screens, as the horrific events we now refer to as “9/11” unfolded.
At Somerset Rural Electric Cooperative, which straddles the turnpike in southwestern Pennsylvania, the news from New York City and Washington, D.C., made one employee say, “Thank God we live in rural America. Stuff like this doesn’t happen around here.”
Moments later, a call came in about a power outage in the rolling hills above nearby Shanksville. As the co-op’s dispatcher radioed the outage location to a line crew in the area, a 911 operator broke onto the co-op’s radio frequency. The power outage, the voice said, may be related to reports of a plane crash in that area. Suddenly, Somerset lineworkers were about to join the first responders to the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history. (Please see sidebar.)
On Sept. 11, 2001, the sequence of numerals — 9-1-1 — went from being a symbol of rapid response and relief (“Help is on its way!”) to a symbol of both hope and horror. The Islamic terrorists who hijacked the planes that day also hijacked those numerals. Most tragic is that first responders — firefighters and police in New York City — were among the hardest hit by 9/11.
While Indiana’s electric cooperatives never have been among the first on the scene of a world-changing catastrophe like the one crews from Somerset REC were called in to assist, crews from Indiana have gone to the Gulf states in the immediate aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ivan and others that caused widespread devastation.
Mostly, though, they have been among the first responders when Indiana’s weather hurls tornadoes, ice storms and flooding across rural areas. Co-ops are there when their neighbors need power and light to begin restoring shattered lives. Co-ops are there when power lines are knocked from their poles by car accidents along county roads and those strands stand between rescuers and those needing help.
“Whenever power lines are involved in emergency situations, co-op line crews become first responders. It can be a matter of life and death,” said David Lett, CEO at Harrison REMC. “In those times, police, firefighters and EMTs can’t do their jobs until we do ours.”
To serve and protect
Like most electric co-ops around Indiana, Harrison REMC provides special training for local first responders. Each February, the Corydon-based co-op holds an evening seminar with demonstrations covering many areas and scenarios of how electricity might impact them in serving the public.
The invitation goes out to all 17 volunteer fire departments and EMTs serving the REMC’s service territory. Harrison REMC’s energy advisor Bob Geswein said participation is always high. Some 70-140 firefighters and EMTs attend, first for a dinner hosted by the REMC’s staff and directors in the co-op’s heated warehouse. Then they get down to business.
“We have the expertise, or know where to get it, to discuss the electrical safety issues the seminar covers. We are a natural ‘go to’ resource for them,” said Geswein. “We want to participate in helping the community, and this seminar effort hits that target dead center.”
The programs vary from year-to-year, but Geswein said he tries to cover the same topics every five years because turnover is frequent, especially at volunteer departments.
Gary Kleeman, EMS department manager at Harrison County Hospital in Corydon, said the REMC’s seminars are vital to the community responders.
“They’re the specialists in this field,” he said. “We appreciate the fact they do it and share their knowledge. It’s a lot of the things you can’t see — you can’t see electricity or smell or hear it. It’s just super dangerous.”
Kleeman added the seminars are even more critical for the rural volunteer fire departments that often don’t have the funds to bring in outside experts on their own. The REMC doesn’t charge for the seminar.
Geswein said the high voltage line demonstration is something the fire departments specifically request on a two year rotation. “The fire chiefs said they want the new recruits to see that electric arc — to realize how much power is in those wires,” noted Geswein. “So we make a big arc.”
At one seminar a few years ago, Geswein even had a specially-trained technician from the local Chevrolet dealer speak about the Volt. Chevrolet’s then-new plug-in hybrid electric car is powered by high-voltage batteries. That presentation covered special concerns with the car’s design, its batteries, and where to, and not to, cut on the car should rescuers ever need to free passengers trapped because of an accident. “That seminar had more guys stay after to look at the car and ask questions than any other seminar we had ever hosted over the 25 to 30 years we have been doing firemen seminars,” Geswein said.
“It’s our job here to keep you guys safe,” Jeff Dickerson, vice president of operations and engineering services at Boone REMC, told a group of county law enforcement officers last month at the start of a safety demonstration the Lebanon-based co-op hosted.
Dickerson held up and passed around a strand of copper and steel wire with a greenish patina. He said the bare strand, about the diameter of computer power cord, was typical of the power lines along county roads.
“We’ll have a pole hit, and if there are trees in the background and this thing is laying low, you cannot see it,” he told the group. “If this is laying in the grass, you don’t have any idea if this is energized or what it is. So the best thing to do is stay in your car and give us a call. We will go out. We will secure the scene.”
That’s life saving advice for all motorists.
The demonstration included examples of how electricity silently coursing through power lines overhead and underground can pose dangers to first responders, victims and bystanders at accident scenes.
“One of the most important parts of our job is to train the first responders. They’re going to be the first people on the scene. They’re going to need to know exactly what to do when they get there,” Dickerson said.
Zionsville Police Chief Robert Knox was one of the attendees at Boone REMC’s demonstration. Though he’s been a police officer for a long time, he noted, “You can’t see or hear about this kind of stuff too often. This type of thing can absolutely save somebody’s life.
“Whether it’s a car crash or tornado or something like that, we’re likely going to be the very first people on the scene,” Knox said. “So it’s vital for all public safety responders to know what the dangers are and to have respect for this stuff. We’ve got to do everything we can to prepare our public safety folks for what they might encounter out there on the scene.”
Whether it’s assisting rescuers during national tragedies like 9/11, restoring power in the aftermath of a hurricane, or simply responding to a single-car collision with a utility pole, electric co-ops are there.
It’s a circle of life. Rural and suburban residents own and control the co-ops; co-op linemen and experts share their special knowledge and training to ensure the electrical safety of first responders — the police, firefighters and EMTs; and the first responders serve and protect consumers.
“Our community expects us to help our brethren responders when we have the knowledge to make it safer for them,” added Geswein. “The local electric co-op is just one of the shoulders a community leans on to provide safe responses to its needs.”
Richard G. Biever is senior editor of Electric Consumer.