It was a Thursday afternoon and things were getting wild in the snow white world beyond our doors. 

A car had slid into a pole in Auburn and a woman was trapped inside the wreckage. Another pole was down in a nearby part of town and wires were down on a truck. 

Somewhere in Lewiston, a car had skidded off the road and rolled onto its roof in the cold wet snow that was coming down harder by the minute. 

There was a plow truck crash in Sabattus, or possibly Wales. In every town to dot the local map, wires were down everywhere and some of them were starting fires as they sparked and spit like flame-throwing snakes in the slush. 

So many trees were succumbing to the weight of snow, the windy world crackled with the gunshot sounds of limbs snapping. 

It was 4:30 p.m. I had started keeping a list of all of the mad doings coming across the airwaves, but it became impossible to keep up. There wasn’t enough ink in a standard pen to jot it all down, and who could keep up with the furious pace of the calls?

Afternoon became late afternoon which in turn became night. Darkness fell, the snow kept coming and the wind blew in furious gusts over the cold and beleaguered world. 

I sat glued to the police scanner all that night, afraid to turn away even for a second for fear of missing the next big thing. There was monotony, sure — I have not heard so many reports of wires down and tree limbs on roofs since the Ice Storm of ’98, and even then I don’t know if the old storm had the same frantic pace as this big blow. 

Power was out everywhere. At the dispatch center, systems went down including some phones. You could hear the stress and strain in the voices of the dispatchers as they relayed call after call after call to the fire crews. 

Then came the voice that summarized it all. 

I don’t know who said it, where he was or what call he was on. The scanner was a clamor of emergencies coming so jackhammer fast, it was hard to keep track of any of it. And from out of all that mad chatter came a tired and dazzled voice that said only: “Utter chaos.” 

I waited to hear if the fireman (I assume it was a fireman, anyway) would say more. He did not. And as crazy as that night got, I never heard another note of complaint, distress or confusion from the dispatchers, cops, firefighters and linemen tasked with managing all the madness on that wild, wintry battlefield. 

At one point during the evening, four poles were reported down after a tumbling tree limb snagged the lines. While fire crews were contending with that, there was a report of a fire after those spark-spitting snakes set something on the ground ablaze. Somewhere nearby, another downed pole demanded the attention of both power crews and public works to shut down roads. 

In Lewiston, a tree crashed down on a propane tank, which immediately started hissing its toxic fumes. A moment or two later, a tree came down on a trailer while another smashed a sheriff’s cruiser that had been parked considerately to make way for the plows.

On and on it came, yet those cops, firefighters and dispatchers just kept handling things with almost eerie aplomb. With but a few lapses, their voices remained cool, even and controlled. Emergency reported, emergency addressed, emergency handled. 

“Utter chaos,” the man had said, but while those words were still on the wind, he was back to the matter of managing the crisis at hand. 

It’s easy to forget, in the blurry confusion of pandemic, that no matter how much chaos is caused by the fear and isolation of COVID-19, perfectly mainstream troubles are going to keep buzzing like infuriated hornets about our heads. 

People are still overdosing. And fighting, setting their kitchens on fire, wrapping their cars around poles, falling down stairs, keeling over with heart attacks, cracking their heads on various objects, cutting themselves, falling asleep with lit cigarettes and generally hurting themselves or others in all sorts of new and inventive ways. 

Someone needs to be handling all that. Somebody IS handling all that, and bless them for it. 

COVID has brought its own brand of chaos to the world, but the chaos of our everyday lives cares not a whit about that. The April 9 storm laughed at COVID and its attendant nuisances and said, “Here, my prickly-headed friend. Hold my ice-cold beer and watch THIS!” 

Out and out and out those emergency crews went into that miserable night to assess damaged poles and downed lines; to put out fires and patch the wounds of the injured; to wrestled bulky tree limbs from mangled cars and crushed roofs; to sort out flooded basements, smoke-filled houses and a weird variety of calamities nobody could foresee.  

Through it all, the dispatchers, sitting in the glow of screens that just kept churning out the mayhem, worked around power outages, phones that no longer worked and a volume of calls that bordered on madness. 

Firefighters, meanwhile, were out in the teeth of that rampaging beast of a springtime storm. They drove their massive trucks on roads that were almost lost to the depths of heavy, wet snow. These jacks-of-all-trades slipped, slid and scrambled in that icy muck from one scene to the next, dealing with a crazy variety of problems that would completely befuddle us ordinary folk. 

From my warm and comfortable perch, listening to the rat-a-tat-tat pace of the calls was like listening in on the most furious part of a military battle where snow and wind are the enemy combatants. All night long, I kept expecting to hear one of them crumble into utter defeat, declaring that the battle was lost. 

“It’s over!” he or she might say. “We’re overwhelmed, we can’t keep up! We have to retreat to the station and may God have mercy on your souls!” 

But of course, THAT voice never came. Just that brief moment where someone remarked that it was “utter chaos” before jumping back into the work. It was a marvel to hear. Several times throughout the night, I felt the urge to stand and applaud. I think I may have done so once or twice. 

“Dispatchers and firefighters all around the area did an outstanding job,” Lewiston fire investigator Paul Ouellette said. “Not to mention the unsung heroes — CMP and the other out-of-state linemen. Everyone pulled together.” 

You know it, brother. 

In the 24-hour period between Thursday morning and Friday morning, the Lewiston-Auburn 911 dispatch center handled 750 calls to the non-emergency system and 283 calls placed straight to 911. Dispatchers entered 445 calls into their computer aided dispatch system, roughly representing the number of times resources had to be sent to an incident.

The numbers, no matter how you slice them up, are immense. They reveal the kind of day where dispatchers and emergency responders barely have time to suck in a big breath before moving from one frantic to call to the next.

And smack dab in the middle of the roaring madness of the storm came a small handful of calls that seemed ludicrously out of place with the rest of it.

At around midnight, while the storm still roared, somebody in Lewiston reported a barking dog. Around the same time, somewhere in Lewiston or Auburn, a woman called requesting a fire crew because her smoke alarm was chirping and it was bothering her. 

Amid all of that wild pandemonium, on a night where it seemed all of Lewiston-Auburn and the surrounding area was crumbling to the ground, here was a woman vexed by a wee little issue most of us handle on our own two or three times a year. 

It was such an ordinary call, the nature of it either infuriating or hilarious in the context of the bedlam going on around it. But I thought about it later and, you know what? I haven’t checked on this, but I have a powerful suspicion that at some point on that crazy night, a couple of tired and bedraggled firefighters shuffled over to that woman’s house where they quietly and politely repaired that chirping smoke detector so that the poor lady could get some sleep. 

Dispatchers and firefighters, my friends. It’s what they do. And I’m here to tell you, they did it like heroes on that night when spring became winter again and its fury was unleashed upon us.


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