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​Truck versus powerline

​The latest episode of Energy Pulse Northwest involves a fallen tree, downed power line and a BPA energy management engineer named Jennifer Williams. As she takes us through the complexities of her situation, Williams explains the decisions that helped her navigate to safety.

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Justis Beauregard: Welcome to Energy Pulse Northwest, the podcast about all things electric in the Northwest Region. I'm Justis Beauregard. And on today's episode I interview Jennifer Williams, a BPA employee who was involved in a pretty scary safety incident. But right now I'm joined in the studio by Julie Paynter.

Julie Paynter: Hey there.

Justis Beauregard: So it's been a pretty busy month.

Julie Paynter: It has. June is National Safety Month and BPA celebrates during one of those weeks by bringing in guest speakers and talking more about our individual and collective roles in safety.

Justis Beauregard: And so recently we've actually had some of our own people involved in real life safety incidents.

Julie Paynter: That's right. Out in the community, Roland Dizon was in Vancouver, Washington.  And he was playing basketball.  And, one of his teammates went down with a heart attack.  And he responded with first aid and using the AED, which saved his life. 

Also Morgan Noonan witnessed the unfortunate and horrific stabbings on the Portland Public Transit, the Max. And he was able to aid and calm one of the victims. 

And then there was Jennifer, who found herself, the fallen tree, on her truck and a downed power line.  And fortunately, because she had the know how and the training, she was able to respond to this emergency, just like our other folks.

Justis Beauregard:  Yeah, it's a pretty interesting story.  And let's check out that interview with Jennifer. 

Interview with Jennifer Williams

Justis Beauregard:  Hi, I'm Justis Beauregard and I'm joined by Jennifer Williams, an Energy Management Engineer at BPA.

Jennifer Williams:  Hello.

Justis Beauregard:  So what exactly is an energy management engineer?

Jennifer Williams:  I work with workplace service on BPA's internal facilities, the control houses, the maintenance headquarters, HMEM shops.  And my role focuses on identifying efficiency opportunities around energy, water, storm water, that we can implement at our site.

Justis Beauregard:  So you had a pretty unique experience lately.  Can you give me kind of a summary of what happened on April 7th?

Jennifer Williams:  It was the unexpected.  I was…It was a Friday morning, and I went to pick up my mom to take her to a doctor's appointment.  She had just had open heart surgery a week and a half earlier, so she wasn't allowed to drive.  It was, you know, early in the morning.  You know, 7:30, 8:00 a.m. 

And we were…It was a day when we had a pretty big windstorm in Portland.  And the freeway was backed up, so we thought we'd take the smarter route and stay off the freeway on one of the side streets, taking Willamette Falls Drive.  And, as we were kinda crawling down, getting into West Linn, a big willow tree landed on top of my truck.  [Noise of tree falling]  Straddling the…the hood of the truck and the…the bed of the truck.

And, I immediately…Well, so it…it hit the truck, and it was loud.  And we both screamed.  Looked at each other.  Kind of did that initial assessment of, okay, you're okay, I'm okay. I dialed 911 immediately.  And as I was on the phone with 911, and looking around to see what was going on, no other cars were involved.  You know, the…the tree was across the front of the truck, across the back of the truck.  And that was when I noticed that there was a power line that was kind of wound around one of the limbs and across the truck.

And, in that moment I…I wouldn't say my heart sank, but the reality of it kinda sunk in and I…I let the dispatcher that I was on the phone with, with 911 know that there was a power line.  At that time I didn't have any idea if it was live or not.  But, I knew that much.

And, with the training that I've had at BPA, I mean, I know…I know enough to know that that's not a good situation.  That I can't get out of the truck.  I need to…I need to sit still until they can figure out what's going on.

Justis Beauregard:  And so I hear you're expecting?

Jennifer Williams:  Got a little boy on the way who's due July 1st.

Justis Beauregard:  So that and a mother who just had surgery, that's not the ideal situation for a tree to fall on your car.

Jennifer Williams:  [chuckles]  Not so much.  Yeah, I was…At the time I was seven and a half months pregnant, and she was a week and a half out of surgery.  But, you know, that initial assessment, you know, my mom…neither of us were hurt.  We were covered in shattered glass from one of the tree limbs coming through the windshield. 

But, that's part of the safety of vehicles these days is that even the shattered glass, it…neither of us walked away with any major cuts or anything like that.  And, you know, we were…the boy was kicking pretty much immediately.

Justis Beauregard:  So everybody was a little flustered.

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah.  [both chuckle]  Yeah.

Justis Beauregard: So what training helped you be cautious of your surroundings and call for further help?

Jennifer Williams:  I've taken the Arc Flash training.  Which is a two day series.  It's a pretty in-depth class.  I knew…I knew enough to know that I…You know, like I said, I can't get out of the vehicle.  And not to touch anything outside the vehicle.  And that I needed to wait for…I needed to wait for PGE to get there, unless something elevated that.  You know, smoke or sparks or flames, something like that, at that point.  Didn't see any of that. 

We did find out from the firemen that the line, that was across the truck, it went directly to a house.  And that house still had power.  The whole neighborhood actually had power.  So the line was live.  So at that point you just stay put until the experts come.

Justis Beauregard:  And so you actually called one of your colleagues for help?

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah.  I sent a…I sent a message with a photo from the inside of the truck.  And at the time, I was a little lighthearted about it.  And more for my own ease of the situation.  I knew I couldn't panic and I just thought, okay, so we'd been sitting there for two and a half hours at that point.  No one could get ahold of PGE. 

The firemen had been there the whole time.  There was a fire truck that happened to be, I think two cars back from us heading to the fire station that was just down the road.  And so they were there immediately.  But they can't do anything.  They can't touch the line.  And, they couldn't get ahold of PGE.  And they started talking about …you know, they're…[soft chuckle]…as they're standing thirty feet away from the truck.  They can't come up close but they're, yeah, you know, so we're thinking about Plan B.  Okay.

And at this point, I mean, I'm seven and a half months pregnant, getting a little uncomfortable sitting on…[both chuckle]…a lot of broken glass. Okay, what's plan B?  And they said, you know, we're…you know, your trucks still runs, cause after the tree hit it, it was still running.  I turned it off.  Okay.

And they said, well, we're thinking about having you try and drive out from underneath the tree.  And I kinda paused and I'm like, well, would that get me out?  Everything in my gut said that didn't feel right.  But I…These are firemen.  You know, they've had some training too.  I'm not used to, you know, disagreeing with… with a fireman.  Someone…[Justis chuckling]…who's also got my…you know, my best interest at heart.

So, I kind of sat on it for a second.  And looked around.  Looked at the tree.  There's no way I was gonna be able to just…It's not like I could have just pulled out and the line would have just dropped off the back.  It was all entangled.  The tree was partway through my truck, through the windshield in the front and across the back.  And I said, I really don't feel comfortable with that idea.  I'd rather wait for PGE.

And they said, okay fine.  So they kind of walked off.  They came back, you know, again and said…I think they were getting a little, you know, restless as well.  They had to close down the street at the time.  So, they proposed the idea again.  And I… I just…It just didn't sit right, but I didn't really…I didn't…You know, I don’t have any …I don't have enough knowledge to be able to argue with them and say like, no, we're absolutely not doing this. 

But I…I sent a message to a few folks who I know and trust, quite a bit.  And I sent them a picture from the inside of the truck. And it said something along the lines of like, say an individual is in the…[chuckles]…in this predicament.  And this solution or alternative is proposed.  What might that individual do?  And, immediately got responses from them.  You know absolutely don't get out of the truck.  Definitely have to wait for PGE.

And, actually, one of them sent me the YouTube video of…I can't remember what You…PUD had posted it.  But it was the…what to do if you're…if you have a downed power line on your vehicle and if you have to get out.  And, you know, land with both feet.  [Justis chuckles]  As far away from the vehicle as you can.  And… [sighs]…It gave me some relief.  And some confidence to tell the firemen, you know, no, I think that we do need to stay and wait.

So in the meantime one of the contacts that I'd made, Dave [Newcomb?], who is a chief operator up in Covington, asked me if it was alright if he got ahold of BPA dispatch to let them know what was going on and possibly make some contacts with PGE and help to get this resolved.  And…and I, you know, absolutely. 

So from there it went pretty quickly.  He contacted Chris Stanford with dispatch.  And he had contacted another individual.  Anyway, through the Bat line…[both chuckle]…they contacted PGE.  Their senior dispatcher, who gave me a call and said PGE is on their way.  They'll be there within thirty minutes.  Traffic was terrible that day.

Justis Beauregard:  Um hmm.

Jennifer Williams:  So it just took them that long to get there and they were there.  But they had had no idea that we were stuck in the…in the truck.

Justis Beauregard:  Yeah.  Yeah, it's pretty awesome that people rallied together to help you out.

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah.  Yeah, it made me feel really good.  There's a lot of… There's just a lot of people at BPA that care.  That's another example.  I've…I've had many…That's just another example of, you know, one of those situation where thankfully it didn't get anymore serious.  But, they were there.  They had my back.

Justis Beauregard:  Yeah. And it sounds like if you had chosen the wrong decision it's…it could have gone a lot differently.

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah.  Yeah.  I…I think about that a lot.  You know, if I…We were sitting there, and as the hours were passing the wind didn't stop.  And so, every time another gust of wind would…would blow, the tree would shift.  You know, on the truck.  I kept thinking, just stay put.  [Justis chuckles]  You know, don’t move.  Stay where you're at.

Justis Beauregard:  And then so looking back, would you do anything differently?

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah, I probably would have contacted BPA a lot sooner.

Justis Beauregard:  [chuckles] And then, so how did it feel once the wires and tree were removed from your truck?

Jennifer Williams:  Once PGE got there it was pretty quick.  They had already de-energized the line.  And…and so once they arrived they removed it from the truck.  And firemen pretty quickly grabbed the chainsaw.  You know, got the limbs out of the way so we could get out of the truck.  And…and at that point, you know, you get out and you kinda shake off some broken glass and look at each other.  I just gave my mom a big hug. 

And we…we were both just kinda shaking our heads, like of all the people… [chuckles]…that could have gotten stuck in a truck at this point.  We were just glad that we…we were safe.  We got out and then we gave…and I gave my fiancé a hug and, you know, my…my step-dad was there, so she gave him a hug.  It was just a relief.

Justis Beauregard:  So your fiancé and step-dad had shown up while this was going on?

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah. [chuckles]  Yeah.  I waited a li…I waited a little bit to let 'em know.  My fiancé, that we were stuck in the truck.  Just because I didn't want to freak him out.  At first I didn't know how serious the situation was. And then, you know, so I called him.  It was…It had only been like twenty minutes, but I called him and I'm like, so…[both chuckle].  Don't freak out, but…[chuckles].  And, here's the situation.

And, you know, I let him know that…that the firemen were there.  That…that we were okay.  You know, he did come, but he couldn't get close to the truck.  He couldn't…he couldn't come and get me out, so I…I kept him updated.  He showed up pretty quickly though. 

Justis Beauregard:  So do you think you're gonna share this story with your son?

Jennifer Williams:  Oh, absolutely.  [Chuckles]  My mom saved a piece of the bark from the tree and said that that's gonna go in his scrapbook.  And just let him know that that was one of his first experiences.  I was…I was really grateful that he started kicking right away.  I didn't have anything to worry about.  I probably would have been panicking and…and maybe a little more eager to get out of the truck if he had been quiet in there, but…he's a trooper.

Justis Beauregard:  And do you have anything you want to add?

Jennifer Williams:  I can definitely say in the moment, like when I was in the experience I didn't expect it to be, you know, too big of a deal at BPA.  Since folks found out and…and more people have been hearing about the situation, and realizing that I have an opportunity to share the experience and someone else can learn from it.  And, hopefully, no one else has an experience anything similar to it.  But if they did, they would possibly remember, oh, I remember, you know, reading that article or hearing…hearing the interview and here's how they, you know, went through it or what they didn't do, maybe they can learn from it.

Justis Beauregard:  And then so now that you've been through all this, what's your advice to people if they are…have a situation like this, or they see a downed power line?

Jennifer Williams:  Definitely take it seriously.  And until you know without a doubt that that's not a live line, you know, stay…stay away.  Call and notify someone.  In that situation, I mean, I…we did try and call PGE.  And on that day, in their defense they had some hundred thousand calls from around the area of folks with downed power lines or…or about power outages.  So they were very busy.

But, trust your instinct.  You know, that's probably what saved me.  I…I…In the sense of like you know, here's this proposed alternative.  I have never been in that situation exactly before, but it didn't feel right.  So I, you know, trusted my gut and then asked for help.  So BPA, like I said, BPA has got a lot of really caring people.  Obviously, a lot of smart people, a lot of trained people.  And, reach out.  Don't be afraid to reach out.

Justis Beauregard:  Awesome.  Well, that's a pretty…pretty intense story.  And, so thanks for coming and sitting down and talking with me.

Jennifer Williams:  Yeah, no problem.  I think…Mostly I think that I do too much outdoor adventure..[Justis chuckles]…in…in my…you know, out…outside work life.  Because at the time I remember thinking, okay, we're…It's a stable situation. We've got…we've got an issue.  [Chuckles]  It's a pretty serious issues, but we're a stable situation.  So as long as nothing changes, we're gonna be okay.  That's how I kept myself from panicking. 

You know, on pretty much any random weekend I'm out…I don't know, at the top of a mountain, or…[Justis chuckles]…you know, climbing somewhere.  Rock climbing or hiking and…I have been in situations that could be considered pretty hairy before.  And, so just trusting…trust in your gut.  Really do.

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Justis Beauregard:  And that was our interview with Jennifer.  And Julie has some tips about what to do if you come across a downed power line.

Julie Paynter:  Yes.  Assume all downed power lines are energized.  Do not drive over those power lines.  Stay in your car.  If in danger, jump away from your car and land with both feet together.  Then shuffle at least thirty-five feet to reach safety. And as Jennifer reminds us, if something doesn't seem quite right, trust your gut.

Justis Beauregard:  That was a fun interview and that…those are some good tips.  And, thank you for tuning to Energy Pulse Northwest.  You can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at Bonneville Power.


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