The 911 calls started pouring in just after noon in the tiny western Pennsylvania town of Brookville. The electrical meter is on fire. The house siding is burning. My power strip is smoking. The computer is fried. The carpeting is singed. Our light bulb exploded.
A power company says a failed power line component was to blame for an electrical surge Jan. 20 in Brookville, population 4,000. When it was over, 500 to 1,000 residents were affected, said Tracy Zents, the director of Jefferson County’s Department of Emergency Services.
“I’ve been doing this a little over 30 years, and this is definitely a first for me,” Zents said. “We were fortunate that nobody was hurt.”
The volume of calls quickly overwhelmed the local volunteer fire department 70 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, which had to call three other departments for help, Zents said.
Even the police department wasn’t spared. The surge tripped the department’s main office radio, so the initial emergency calls were missed, said Chief Jason Brown.
“Then all of a sudden I hear fire engines, so I turned on my handheld,” Brown said. He quickly learned what happened, as fluorescent lights in the building next door started exploding in their sockets.
He said he doesn’t know anyone on the east side of town who wasn’t affected in some way.
“You go down the street and you see all these blackened meters,” he said.
Scott Surgeoner, a spokesman for electric utility FirstEnergy, said Friday the problem started with a failed insulator on a power line. That failure caused a flash that spread to a feeder line to Brookville, and about 475 customers lost power. It was restored by 5 p.m. the same day, he said.
The cause of the failure isn’t clear, but Surgeoner said it’s not uncommon for insulators to fail after years of weather exposure.
“It’s similar to an alternator in a car. Why does it fail after a few years? Mine might last for 10 years, but yours might last for five,” he said. “Any equipment that is on a pole in the air and is subjected to weather 365 days a year, 24 hours a day is susceptible to failure.”
Any customers who feel FirstEnergy’s local provider, Penelec, was negligent can file a claim with the company, and they will be reviewed on case-by-case basis, Surgeoner said. He’s not sure if any have been received.
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The AP’s Kristen DeGroot contributed to this article.