South Portland fire truck damage blamed on lack of training, attention

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials said the accident that damaged the Fire Department’s new $1.1 million ladder truck was due to insufficient training and a lack of awareness by firefighters. 

They’re still waiting to learn whether the truck is a total loss and how much of the damage will be covered by insurance.

During a training operation Oct. 30 at the Cash Corner Fire Station, the 107-foot aerial ladder on the 2018 Pierce truck struck a power line on Skillings Street. The electricity it sent through the truck caused the front right tire to catch fire and destroyed the vehicle’s complex wiring system, according to a news release from City Manager Scott Morelli. 

The firefighters involved in the incident were able to get clear of the vehicle without any injuries and extinguish the fire.

Since the incident, the city has been utilizing a 1996 ladder truck while an internal investigation into the incident was conducted. 

Last Wednesday and Thursday, city Safety Coordinator Louis Cavallaro presented his report to Morelli, Fire Chief James Wilson and Human Resources Director Stephanie Weaver. Portions of the report regarding potential employee discipline were redacted before the report was released Dec. 7, pursuant to Maine law that requires names of public employees who may be sanctioned or disciplined to remain confidential until a final written decision regarding discipline has been rendered.

The report states that the cause of the incident was inattention by the operator and a training deficit that did not emphasize the need for a spotter during training or other non-emergency use.

The city received the new ladder truck Oct. 4 and held training sessions Oct. 15-18 and 23-26 before putting the truck into service Oct. 28 as Ladder 45.

The incident happened two days later, shortly after 10:30 a.m., during an in-service training session behind the fire station, according to the report. Firefighters were extending the ladder out and down when a computer display screen went blank and flashed a warning message that communication had been lost to the ladder controls.

Firefighters noticed the ladder had made contact with the highest primary wire on Skillings Street, which carries electricity, the report said.

One firefighter shouted “We’re in the wires,” reported hearing crackling throughout the truck, and noticed black smoke coming  from the right front tire. At first, firefighters remained in the apparatus for about 20 seconds, but after realizing the tire fire had intensified, they fled the truck to avoid electrocution. 

Fire Chief James Wilson has been directed to immediately establish new standard operating guidelines that will require firefighters to designate a spotter during any truck training sessions or equipment evaluations, and conduct an “environmental assessment” to note any potential obstructions in the area, according to Morelli. 

Wilson will also review the department’s internal process to ensure “appropriate and accurate information is captured and documented in a formal process.”

This week, Morelli said city officials plan to meet with the city’s insurer – Maine Municipal Association Risk Management Services – to further inspect the truck for damage and what insurance will cover.

The city’s policy – which includes a $1,000 deductible and replacement coverage for the ladder truck of just over $1 million – is expected to cover the repairs and/or replacement of the vehicle if it is declared a total loss, according to Morelli. 

“While we were extremely fortunate that none of our firefighters were injured from this incident, we may not be so lucky next time,” he said in the release. “To help ensure there is no next time, this report highlights areas we can learn from and improve upon so we can better protect our employees, our equipment, and members of the public.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

The South Portland Fire Department’s new $1.1 million ladder truck, right, was damaged during an Oct. 30 training exercise.

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