Utility changes live lines response
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Florida Power Corp. executives said Monday the utility is changing how it responds to traffic crashes and other emergencies involving downed power lines.
The changes come one month after it took a crew 37 minutes to shut off a 7,200-volt power line that prevented rescuers from possibly saving a trapped motorist.
Andrew Miller, 21, died from injuries in the Dec. 11 crash at Starkey Road south of East Bay Drive. Pinellas 911 operators made five calls to a Florida Power dispatcher. They said Miller was trapped with wires over him. They said there was fire in the car and that he was barely breathing. Twice, they said rescuers could not approach until power workers cut the line.
Even as the urgency increased with each phone call, vice president Michael Lewis said the company needed a better way to initiate a prompt response. But that changed Jan. 15, Lewis said, when the utility introduced a new code phrase for alerting its workers to emergencies.
"It's now described as a "life-threatening incident,"' said John Strickling, a company spokesman. "Standardized verbiage."
Lewis, Strickling and Jan Schultz, manager of distribution dispatch operation, declined to say what kept workers from responding quicker to the crash at Starkey Road. They cited pending litigation by Miller's widow, who has been left to care for two children, ages 3 and 1..
The executives also declined to say whether employees have been disciplined because the investigation is continuing.
Strickling said details of the company's internal review may never be disclosed unless they are brought out in court.
Lewis, a vice president for the company's coastal region, said what the company needs to focus on is improving its relationship with local emergency personnel and developing a strategy for better training on both sides and quick response.
"We have to close the gap," said Lewis. "Historically, we have been a service organization. Applying that to an emergency organization, how does that come together?"
One way is by clearing up the language.
Schultz said the company also plans to make it policy to tell firefighters how long it will take to get a qualified power worker on scene.
Furthermore, Florida Power agreed to meet regularly with public rescue administrators to improve communication. Future plans include requesting police escorts to emergencies, training firefighters to distinguish power lines and inviting 911 and utility dispatchers to visit their respective offices to see how the other side performs.
"We are going to take any opportunity to improve," said Lewis. "Florida Power historically and continually holds public safety in the highest regard."
One of the questions surrounding Miller's death is whether Florida Power had the ability to shut down the power from the dispatcher's headquarters.
Earlier this month, Strickling said in most cases the utility has the capability to do that, but he declined to say whether it was possible in Miller's case.
Lewis said Monday all Pinellas County dispatchers have the ability and the authority to make those decisions. But the company has no clear guidelines.
In most cases, Lewis said dispatchers are instructed to wait for another Florida Power worker to give clearance from the scene. This is necessary because complications can leave power running even after its been shut off from the dispatch center.
"There is no book that says, "Thou shalt not,"' said Lewis. "Yes, they have the authority. (But) based on their vast experience, they know they are putting public at risk without field personnel (to provide visual verification)."
Chuck Freeman, manager for Pinellas County 911 operations, has been meeting with Florida Power representatives since the crash. He said the new changes will help.
"I know the firefighters do not want to get in the business of shutting down power," said Freeman. "Short of them actually shutting down the power, I don't know what else can be done other than continuing to communicate with one another and proceed forward."
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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