Pepco Experience: Resident Struggled to Get Help From Emergency Responders
Pepco and Montgomery County must ensure that outages are fixed more promptly and that calls for help do not go unanswered.
By David S. Rotenstein
Last Wednesday evening was supposed to be a quiet evening to relax and enjoy the snow as my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in our Silver Spring home.
But shortly after 8 p.m. our plans went sideways when I heard a loud crack outside, followed by sounds I couldn’t identify. I went to the door to see what was happening, and that’s when I saw a dangling power line arcing in my yard. Flames and smoke were whipping around about 20 feet from my house.
Our anniversary ended and a two-day ordeal began.
Upon seeing the situation in the yard, I shouted for my wife to call 911. She replied that she could not get through on the landline, so I said, “Try your cell phone.”
In the meantime, I ran to get my phone and I tried 911. I got a busy signal and kept trying to redial while keeping an eye on the wire draped over our wood fence as its exposed tip was burning everything it touched.
Confident that my wife was diligently dialing and redialing 911, I turned my phone’s camera on the fire and wire as neighbors gathered in the street. See this video of the fire in the yard.
No one could get through to 911. I turned to Twitter to get help. Scared and cold, I tapped out one thing, and my Android’s autocorrect sent this out to my Twitter stream: “Need mock [MoCo] fire department. Can't get thru to 911.” I later sent this tweet: “911 busy signal for 15 minutes. Wire down and fire in yard.”
The power stayed on for about another 45 minutes. While my wife worked her cell phone trying to reach Pepco, I kept trying 911.
After about half an hour, I finally got through to a Montgomery County 911 … computer. I was on hold with 911 so I turned my cell phone camera on the landline and waited through several recorded prompts before an operator answered and put me through to a Fire Department dispatcher. The dispatcher advised me that there was nothing they could do, and he advised me to call back if the situation changed, i.e., if my house were to start burning.
Shortly after the brief chat with 911, we lost power and stayed in the dark until Pepco contractors repaired the downed lines and broken poles Friday afternoon.
After a few fits and starts, the power finally was restored after 45 hours in the dark and cold. We lost all the refrigerated food, and I kept the fireplace fed by making multiple trips to the hardware store for firewood bundles. We kept our phones, radio and flashlights alive by relays between car chargers and the house.
This event is a coda on 10 years of living in Silver Spring.
Next month, we are moving to Atlanta, and among the things I am most excited about is our new power company. Georgia Power has one of the highest reliability ratings in the nation; Pepco, on the other hand, has one of the lowest, according to a December 2010 Washington Post investigation.
Maryland regulators must impose new reliability standards on Pepco, and there must be real punitive consequences for Pepco if it cannot keep the power on during storms and restore it in a timely manner if there is an outage. Montgomery County cannot have a non-responsive 911 call center.
We were lucky: a family in a nearby neighborhood lost its home to an electrical fire because they could not reach Montgomery County’s 911 call center. Although Montgomery County officials cited problems with Verizon Wireless as the chief reason why callers could not get through, that explanation fails to cover my minutes on hold awaiting a 911 operator.
Montgomery County’s elected officials must find out what went wrong and ensure that this never again happens.