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Mineola chief blasts LIPA for response to firefighters

Men trapped in truck for 3 hours by downed wire

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Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012 12:19 pm

Three members of the Mineola Fire Department were trapped in a fire truck struck by a live power line for three hours last Friday, and the department chief wants answers from the Long Island Power Authority about its response to the emergency.

“There’s no way in hell that anybody should be caught in a truck for three hours when a chief calls for a response or for a grid to be shut down,” Mineola Fire Department Chief Joseph Pratt said. “We take this very seriously. It’s just like a third rail.”

Pratt said he intends to file a letter of complaint with the Nassau County Fire Commission so that a similar situation does not recur.

LIPA spokesman Mark Gross defended the utility’s response to the downed wire.

“It’s not a matter of response time that it took us a long time to get here. We needed to coordinate with everybody to find out how to de-energize this line, keep everybody safe and maintain power to the hospital,” Gross said.

While responding to an alarm from Mineola Middle School during a thunderstorm last Friday, June 22 at 2:17 p.m. Mineola firefighters were flagged down by a man at the intersection of Horton Highway and Jackson Avenue who said his house was on fire, Pratt said.

The fire chief said he immediately dispatched instructions for half the trucks that were on their way to the middle school to the site of the reported fire on Horton and Garfield Avenue.

Upon arriving at the scene, the Mineola volunteers found one end of a primary power line sparking in the gutter and other power line in a tree outside the house.

“The tree was on fire, and the wind blew the smoke into the house. He thought his house was on fire,” Pratt said of the homeowner who reported a fire.

While at the scene, a second primary power line broke loose and landed across the hood of a fire truck stationed to block traffic at Cleveland Avenue and Horton Highway.

“I automatically went over the air and told [Nassau County] Fire Command I needed a forklift response from LIPA and I requested the grid to be shut down,” Pratt said. “At some point, the supervisor from Firecom got involved, said the grid was shut down, but Winthrop [University Hospital] was back-feeding power into grid through its back up generators.”

Pratt said he also called a special fire line LIPA maintains for situations of extreme emergency. The LIPA operator was already aware of the situation, he said.

Gross said Pratt did not call the special LIPA line and said the power utility dispatched a crew to the scene immediately. 

It was 4 p.m. before a lone LIPA technician arrived on the scene, according to Pratt, who said the LIPA technician used a bucket truck to examine the line and told him the power feeding back from the hospital had still not been shut down.

More technicians arrived an hour later, Pratt said. They indicated the power lines were shut down and one of them removed the wire from the truck.

The Mineola chief said in virtually all situations involving severed power lines, the fire department waits for the utility company to remove the wire.

“In some cases, we would remove it ourselves if we knew the grid was shut down. But we still would prefer the professionals do it,” Pratt said.

In the emergency on Friday, the wire was just between the truck’s chrome bell and siren and 5-inch water intake.

“You don’t want to take the chance on there being a complete circuit,” Pratt said.

The three volunteers, Alex Klein, Nick Ruscillo and Rich Baughan, remained trapped in the truck for nearly three hours, until LIPA workmen arrived on the scene at approximately 5 p.m., isolated the source of the power feedback from Winthrop, and removed the feedback so the power line was no longer live.

The firefighters were safe in the truck because the vehicles rubber tires naturally ground it, but both they and other Mineola firemen who remained on the scene for the three hours spent awaiting the rescue said they were very frustrated with LIPA’s response.

“I’m very upset. It was very scary. It’s like having a child and you’re powerless. You’re stuck in the street and your guys were stuck in a truck,” Pratt said.

Pratt gave credit to Lt. Michael DeStefano, of Mineola Fire Department 1st Engine Co. 3, for helping prevent injuries to the firefighters in the truck.

Pratt said DeStefano did a “brilliant” job of explaining situation to him and keeping the men under his command in the stricken truck 167 calm and safe.

DeStefano had just stepped out of the truck when the wire fell on it. He knew it was a primary wire and that his men had to stay in the truck to remain safe. The men on the truck had bottled water and DeStefano kept up a dialogue with them during the crisis - the most serious one he’d ever confronted.

“I was able to yell to them as well as talking to them on the radio,” DeStefano said. “Anything could happen. You try to keep your own cool.”

Pratt said this incident was the “scariest time” he’s experienced with firefighters under his command being in harm’s way during the six years he’s served as chief of the Mineola department.

During the incident, he said, he was in communication with ex-chiefs and other officers of the department on procedures to implement if one of the men in the truck needed medical assistance.

“You don’t really know what to plan for because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pratt said.

As of early this week, Pratt said he had no communication with LIPA officials about the incident.

“If anything, they’ll set up a precedent or program also that they call a crew off. No one was coming right away for us,” Pratt said.

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