Monday, May 14, 2012
Illegal "covering", a term for overriding emergency radio communication, appears to have interfered with bringing appropriate area fire departments to help fight a fire at a mobile home Saturday afternoon.
According to Lebanon emergency officials, attempts to summon mutual aid to the scene to help fight the fire were met with radio interference consistent with the seemingly intentional "covering" of emergency communication lines —prevalent in the past two months,— which may have cost a family their home.
Ultimately the fire destroyed a mobile home, damaged at least two neighboring homes, killed the occupant's cat and left a man homeless, when the communication problem occurred.
While such "covering" has not occurred since the end of April, when calls requesting advanced life support were not going through during a medical emergency in town, the problem arose again Saturday as fire officials were calling for assistance to help fight the fire around 2:45 p.m.
Firefighters were on their way to the fire and attempted to call for a first alarm, bringing neighboring towns for mutual aid, but the call did not go through until several attempts were made, said Fire Assistant Chief Daniel Roy.
He said because of interference over the emergency personnel's radios, "Every time we said something, we had to repeat it."
EJ Hersom/Staff photographer Jonathan Harlow sorts metal from the wreckage of his home Sunday after a fire destroyed his home Saturday in Lebanon, Maine. Intentional radio intereference, a felony crime, hampered firefighter efforts battling the blaze Saturday.
Roy said because of this interference, a key piece of equipment that Lebanon, Maine firefighters needed at the scene — a tanker from Rochester that holds 3,000 gallons of water — did not arrive. When Rochester firefighters responded for mutual aid, they only brought a fire engine.
As interference continued, Roy said that Sanford Regional Communications released a message over the radios, stating that interfering with emergency communication lines is illegal.
"After that it seemed to calm down a little bit," said Roy.
According to Rescue Assistant Chief Jason Cole, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the State Police are investigating such covering of emergency lines, a federal crime, in the Lebanon, Maine area.
When fire officials arrived to the scene they found the mobile home at 9 Evergreen Ave. fully engulfed in flames and the fire was spreading to neighboring homes.
As they battled the blaze, accompanied by heavy smoke and extreme heat, "We were hurting for water," said Roy.
"As soon as we started water (from Lebanon fire trucks) we were out in a minute and a half," he said.
After Lebanon's water supply was exhausted, the Rochester fire engine took over providing the water to put out the flames. Shortly after, Rochester's supply was empty as well.
By the time fire officials went to a nearby hydrant to refill tanks, fire tankers arrived from the towns of Alfred, Shapleigh, and Berwick, Maine which finally provided for enough water to put out the fire.
Other than water supply problems, communications during the dispatch had trouble Saturday night, when the wrong towns were called for first-alarm mutual aid, said Roy.
While Evergreen Avenue is located on the east side of Lebanon, Maine, towns on the west side of town — such as Alfred, Acton, and Sanford, Maine — were called with the first alarm. Roy said towns closer to the east side of Lebanon, Maine — such as Berwick, Maine, Rochester and Milton — should have been called first.
Roy said Lebanon, Maine officials and Sanford Regional Communications are currently working to find out why the wrong towns were called to assist at the beginning, saying it takes longer for mutual aid closer to the other side of town to arrive to the scene.
While emergency crews were on their way to the Evergreen Avenue, a second alarm was called.
One firefighter was injured during Saturday's fire but was not transported to the hospital, said Roy. Cole said two homeowners at Evergreen Avenue also received minor injuries but did not require transport.
The owner of the destroyed home, Jonathan Harlow, 31, said he has no idea what caused the fire, which, according to firefighters at the scene, seems to have started in the kitchen. He said he does not have candles and his propane tank is empty.
Harlow said nearly all of his possessions and his cat perished in the fire. Although he had tried to go into the house to save his cat, the smoke was too heavy, said Harlow.
Half of his car was also burned by the flames, leaving the vehicle unusable.
Although Red Cross provided three nights for him at the Holiday Inn, Harlow said he has no idea where he will go after that.
"I have no living situation" said Harlow. He said his mobile home was worth about $31,900.
On Saturday afternoon, Harlow had been doing some yard work when he went to Home Depot for 20 to 30 minutes to buy some flowers.
"When I came back my house was engulfed in flames," said Harlow.
He said he saw his neighbor using a hose to pour water into the windows of Harlow's home. Upon seeing what had happened, Harlow joined his neighbor in putting out the flames.
While Harlow said he is disappointed with the slow response time of the Lebanon Fire Department, Roy said it only took minutes for fire officials to get to the scene.
Harlow said it took Lebanon firefighters 42 minutes to get to the scene. Roy said that two Lebanon fire engines were on scene by 2:58 p.m., just 13 minutes after they were dispatched.
"If we would have been there 42 minutes later, the trailer wouldn't even been there at all," said Roy, implying the mobile home would have been completely burned to the ground if response time was that slow. "When you are waiting for the fire truck to come, it seems like a long, long time."
Harlow said he is also concerned it took firefighters too long to get their equipment ready and to put out the flames. He said had fire officials not stopped him and his neighbor from hosing down the home, it would have taken just a few minutes to put the flames out and save most of his home.
"My house could have been saved. I was using my hose and my neighbor was using his hose," said Harlow.
Roy, however, said unfortunately, there was no chance of saving Harlow's home.
"There was no saving this trailer," said Roy. "When a mobile home has so much fire coming out of it, it's pretty much a write-off."
He said firefighters on the scene were concerned about nearby homes, to which the fire was spreading. At least two homes next to Harlow's were damaged during the blaze.
STORY FROM: http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120514/GJNEWS_01/705149959