$1.1M ladder truck deemed total loss after catching fire in training session

The ladder truck's electrical system was severely damaged during a training exercise weeks after it was delivered to the city


By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A $1.1 million South Portland Fire Department ladder truck has been declared a total loss after its electrical system was severely damaged during a training exercise weeks after it was delivered to the city last year.

The cost to replace truck will be covered almost entirely by the city's insurance.

A $1.1 million South Portland Fire Department ladder truck has been declared a total loss after its electrical system was severely damaged during a training exercise. (Photo/SPFD)
A $1.1 million South Portland Fire Department ladder truck has been declared a total loss after its electrical system was severely damaged during a training exercise. (Photo/SPFD)

City Manager Scott Morrelli said in a statement released Thursday that the Maine Municipal Association Risk Management Services, which provides insurance to cities and towns across Maine, will pay for all but $7,604 of the total $1,069,486 to replace the Pierce-brand truck.

As a result of the incident, Captain Chris Copp was temporarily demoted to lieutenant for 29 days between Dec. 12 and Jan. 9, according to a letter of discipline released by the city.

The incident occurred when firefighters were training in the rear parking lot of the Cash Corner fire station Oct. 30 when the truck's aerial ladder made contact with power lines along Skillin Street, damaging portions of the truck's electrical system and sparking a fire that burned the truck's front right tire.

According to the disciplinary letter, Copp took "complete responsibility" for the incident and will be required to develop a plan to implement the new safety protocols that were developed by the city as a result of the accident. He has since returned to the rank of Captain.

The truck had been delivered to the city a few weeks earlier on Oct. 4. The city conducted training on eight days that month before it was placed into service Oct. 28. Two days later, the truck was rendered inoperable.

Firefighters weren't paying attention and hadn't been properly trained on the truck's use, according to an earlier report by the city. As a result of the accident, the fire department implemented new standards and protocols, and now require that before training sessions, someone must assess the environment for risk factors such as power lines, and a designated spotted must watch for hazards during the training.

When the ladder struck the wires, firefighters were extending the ladder outward and down. A computer display screen suddenly went blank and flashed a warning message that communication had been lost to the ladder controls.

Firefighters looked toward Skillings Street and noticed the ladder had made direct contact with the highest primary wire, which carries electricity for Center Maine Power Co., the report said.

"We're in the wires!" shouted one firefighter, who also heard crackling throughout the truck and noticed black smoke billowing from the right front tire. The firefighters fled the truck within seconds to avoid being electrocuted, according to a redacted version of an internal investigative assessment performed by the city's Safety Coordinator, Louis Cavallaro along with the human resources director Stephanie Weaver.

The names of the firefighters were removed from the report and will only become public if the department leaders make a decision of final discipline as a result of the incident.

After a lengthy assessment, the top engineer at Pierce determined in December that the damaged truck's internal electrical systems could not be relied upon even if the outward physical damage could be repaired, and recommended the truck be deemed a total loss.

Modern fire apparatus rely on computerized systems to monitor and run heavy-duty hydraulics that move the massive, 107-foot long ladder and extend it into the air. Damage to those electronic components may not appear until later, and the manufacturer recommended against re-deploying the truck over concerns that an unpredictable failure during firefighting could prove catastrophic.

Pierce also lowered the price to buy the replacement truck, despite increased costs due to inflation. The city will pay only $6,604 more than when they purchased the original vehicle, the city said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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