CARTHAGE — Being an emergency responder in the age of cell phones is often frustrating, because Maine's E-911 system doesn't always work the way the state claims it does for cell phones. Just ask Carthage fire Capt. Larry Blodgett.
The 30-year firefighter and son of a fire chief said recently that fear entered his mind on the night of July 4 after suddenly realizing he was the only firefighter to arrive at a fully-involved structure fire at 711 Weld St. in Dixfield. Everyone else was sent the wrong way on Route 142 toward Weld.
Dixfield Fire Co. -- the closest department at 3.3 miles away -- wasn't dispatched until 20 minutes after the call was initially reported to a dispatch center, according to Dixfield fire Chief Scott Dennett.
"There was a whole breakdown of communication, not the least of which some of our department actually heard a call from Farmington telling us that it was the Weld-Carthage town line, and that's like 8 to 10 miles distant down the wrong way," Blodgett said on July 13.
"I feel frustrated on a number of calls," he said. "There have been cases where minutes could matter and if you're going in the wrong direction, you're not helping it."
It's happened before, Blodgett said.
"The last serious fire call I was involved in, our Franklin Sheriff's Office sent our truck to the west-side road of Webb Lake, at least four to five miles in the wrong direction from the fire scene, costing valuable minutes before we were redirected in the right direction," Blodgett said. "The single most frustrating situation I encounter is to be at the station with manpower and equipment and not know where to respond. We can't help if we don't know where to go."
Blodgett said he was asleep in his house across from the fire station when he was awakened by the initial structure fire call-out tone at 10:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
Carthage and Weld fire departments were dispatched first, long before Dixfield, because the initial cell phone call went first to a dispatch center in Gray.
From there, it was rerouted to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office in Farmington. Blodgett said he distinctly heard the dispatcher specify an address on Weld Street in Carthage and not in the town of Weld itself, like other responding firefighters -- including Carthage Chief Kenny Flagg -- had heard.
"I clearly heard a number and I believe it was 54 Weld St., but it did not say Weld Street in Dixfield, it said Weld Street in Carthage," Blodgett said.
People in Dixfield refer to Route 142 as Weld Street; people in Carthage know the same road that passes through their town as State Route 142.
Blodgett said that because he knew this and that Carthage house numbers are in the 100s, he figured the fire was somewhere on the Dixfield end of Carthage or in Dixfield itself.
"So, that's why I drove in the other direction," he said. As he was driving Engine 4 out of the fire station, Blodgett said he saw Flagg pull into the lot and wave him on. Carthage Fire Department protocol is to drive to the center of town at the four-way intersection, before heading toward anything because oncoming traffic can be seen better than taking the road from the fire station.
Unbeknownst to Blodgett, who turned toward Dixfield, when Flagg drove another firetruck out, he went the opposite way toward Weld.
En route to Dixfield, Blodgett said he heard radio traffic from a Weld firefighter telling him he was going the wrong way.
He also met oncoming responder personal vehicles with their four-way flashers going, heading toward Weld.
He continued driving toward Dixfield and soon heard a Weld firefighter radio that there wasn't anything near the Weld-Carthage line.
"I never really heard any confirmation about where the fire was from anybody until I saw all these vehicles parked into the road (at 711 Weld St. in Dixfield) and then I could actually see the building burning, and I said, 'Well, now I know where it is,' and I immediately called back through and said I was at the fire scene," Blodgett said.
He said he drove the firetruck in closer to the burning house than he dared, because it contained 800 gallons of water. Flames were shooting from the windows and there were about a dozen bystanders on scene when he pulled into the long driveway and saw a lady standing there.
"I don't know who she was, but she was yelling, "Put it out! Put it out!" And I said, "I'll do the best I can,'" Blodgett said.
He chocked the wheels, made sure no one was still in the burning building and primed the pump. A few bystanders offered to help with the hose, and soon they were dousing the fire.
But, 800 gallons only lasts 5 or 10 minutes, he said, and still no other firefighters or firetrucks had arrived.
"It's a scary sensation to be there and not really know what to do for the long-term situation," Blodgett said. After about five minutes or less, he said Dixfield firefighters and Chief Dennett arrived.
He hadn't yet emptied the 800 gallons. "If I'm there quick enough with 800 gallons of water, yeah, that's going to be enough," he said. "But if you wait 5 or 10 minutes, it's too late." "I don't care if you've got 8,000 gallons. It ain't going to be enough," he said.
"Five minutes can make a difference between a building still standing and a building being flat."
He said he understands that people who aren't emergency responders can get overly excited or panic when calling in the location of a fire or serious car accident and mix up a location. Then, every time a different person handles the initial call, it can get distorted, Blodgett said.
"If you're going to make a call, identify the street and where you are," he said. "Like, 'Four miles out of Dixfield.' That would have been wonderful if we knew that."