Friday, February 23, 2018

Freezing rain and power lines turn a routine job into a dangerous situation

By Andrea E. Petrich

A typical day for maintenance technician Don Maybury includes keeping our rest areas and maintenance buildings in northern Whatcom County running. And like most of our maintenance staff, he’s trained to use our snow and ice equipment to help out when winter weather hits.

But Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 was anything but a typical day for Don. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to be at work. But instead of a Friday night with family, Don found himself stuck in a snowplow for about five hours on SR 539/Guide Meridian north of Lynden when freezing rain brought down almost a dozen power poles.

How did he find himself in this predicament?
An icy forecast
It didn’t take maintenance supervisor Bill Joyce long to see that the weather forecast meant he’d need some extra staff. With up to a half-inch of freezing rain predicted, he knew that it was going to lead to some really icy and hazardous conditions. One of his calls was to Don, who arrived at about 3 p.m. to prepare himself and his plow for what would surely be an interesting shift.

Before his team headed out, Bill reminded them to be careful and to be aware that an ice storm like this could start bringing branches, power lines and other hazards down. As it turns out, he was right.
Ice built up on power lines all over Whatcom County, making it difficult to remove
the downed lines tangled up in our maintenance vehicle. Courtesy Randy Small

After working north through Whatcom County, Don slowly made his way up The Guide, past Badger Road (SR 546), where he found a downed power pole blocking the highway north of Lynden. As he waited for traffic to clear, he began to maneuver the plow to turn around.

“I’ve got two trucks left to turn around and all of a sudden kaboom!,” Don said. “My truck starts shaking and rocking and I’m like ‘Woah!’”

Don was stuck.

The ice and pressure from the other fallen poles was too much and another came toppling down – leaving lines tangled up all over Don’s plow.

Don alerted his supervisors to the situation and Bill headed to the scene. The highway was covered with ice chunks the size of cobblestones. When the lines came down, they hit frozen ditches and sent icy chunks of water splashing all over the road. Assuming the lines were still live, Bill told Don to stay put.

Hurry up and wait
With utility crews racing all over the county responding to situations, it became a waiting game for Don and Bill. The State Patrol and fire crews checked in to make sure Don was OK and he was, staying calmer than most would in a similar situation.

Once the utility crews made it to Don, they found they had to actually chip inches of ice off the wires before pliers would even fit around them. They then had to cut lengths of the wire smaller than usual to be able to lift them off the plow and the road.
Five hours after that pole and lines crashed down, the lines were cleared and the area deemed safe. Bill and Don backed the plow off the road so it could head back to work, clearing roads for the public.
During Decembers ice storm in Whatcom County, power poles fell under the pressure of ice, including some
that trapped one of our maintenance workers in his truck for five hours. Courtesy Randy Small

Be prepared
Hopefully you never find yourself in a similar situation to Don, but if you do, Puget Sound Energy has some reminders of what to do if you encounter potentially live power lines:
  • Assume it's energized and stay as far away as you can.
    Energized lines can charge the ground near the point of contact and may electrocute you. If a person or pet comes into contact with a downed power line, remain clear. Do not touch them or the wire.
  • Call 911.
    Leave everything to utility professionals and emergency personnel.
  • Do not drive over downed power lines.
    Even if they're not energized, downed wires can get entangled with your vehicle and cause further damage.
  • Stay in your car.
    If a power line falls on your vehicle while you're driving, do not exit until you know for sure that the line is de-energized.
  • If you must evacuate, jump away and land with both feet together.
    Do not touch the vehicle while stepping on the ground, as this can create a path for electricity to run through you.
  • Shuffle away to safety.
    Keep your feet together and take small, shuffling steps until you're at least 35 feet away. Taking larger steps can also create a path for electricity to run through you.
Our crews are well trained on how to handle these situations, and you can be sure they’ll use this incident to reiterate just how important it is to follow these tips. It’s a great idea for you to also remember them, and share them with your friends and family. Being prepared is vital in staying safe during our Pacific Northwest storms.