July 05--Editor's note: Reporter Sarah Ketchum previously wrote about her experience participating in a local fire academy. She will continue her weekly notebook by writing about public safety issues.
I think of myself as a life-long student. I also like to write. Some of my best days at work are ones where I can write about what I learn.
I recently spent about two months participating in the Newport News Fire Department's first Citizens' Academy and shared what I learned in weekly notebooks. The experience got me thinking about all the other things local public safety workers do that most people don't see.
As a breaking news reporter, I often swoop in, gather facts from officials, snap some photos, throw together a video and then roll on to the next incident. Very rarely do I get the chance to learn, or to explain the work that goes into keeping the public safe.
I woke at 3 a.m. a couple of weeks ago to a tweet from Hampton police about a homicide overnight. As I was putting that information online, I got an email from Newport News police. About the same time as the homicide, someone had hit a power pole on Jefferson Avenue and fled the truck he or she was driving. Power was out in the area and a section of the road was closed. Dominion Virginia Power crews had to stop work overnight because of thunderstorms. Then I got an email from my editor. The storms had caused major power outages. A quick call to Hampton's dispatch center to inquire about police still on scene of the homicide revealed there was also a house fire.
I had to prioritize. My editor took care of the power outages. I ran out to the homicide and then the crash. The two incidents were about a mile apart. When daylight arrived, I went back to the homicide, took a better photo and talked to neighbors who were just waking up. Then I ran out to the house fire and snapped a couple of photos. Firefighters were gone by the time I got there.
Back at the office, I updated some more things online and called local dispatchers to see if anything else major was going on. That's when I learned something big had just happened in York County. They put me on a call back list for a public information officer to give me the details. Then I checked traffic and saw a section of Fort Eustis Boulevard was closed. I put up a post for the traffic issue and waited for my call. A couple of hours later I was as a press conference at the York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office. A deputy had shot and killed a man who pulled a gun on him during a traffic accident investigation on Fort Eustis Boulevard.
The next day I was back over in Hampton. Investigators were digging for suspected dead bodies buried in the back yard of a home where the prime suspect in a Connecticut serial killer case had once lived. They searched for two days in Hampton but didn't find anything. While I was asking neighbors questions about the man, I saw a tweet from the police division. My public information officer had left that scene and was now over at Fort Monroe where they had found a suspicious device. About 20 minutes later, I was there, too.
And the beat goes on.
Public safety notebook
Not all my days are quite that crazy. But as you can see, the pace leaves little time to learn what happens behind the scenes much less write about it.
That's where this notebook comes in.
When I have slower days, I can take advantage of that time and learn more about the jobs of our local emergency management officials, the National Weather Service, police, firefighter medics, and others. I can sit in on some of their trainings and even spend a little more time when I'm out at the scene of breaking news.
For example, on Tuesday several power poles and transformers fell into the street in downtown Newport News. I wasn't actually working at the time, but I just happened to be in the area. It was a mess. Poles were split in half, and several lines were down. Transformers were broken in the streets. It really did look like a tornado had hit. It wasn't though. Something caused one of them to fall, and after that it was a domino effect.
I started running around taking photos because something like that is like Christmas morning to me. Our night breaking news reporter was there doing her job gathering the facts: what happened, was anyone injured, how long would power be out, etc.
When I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see the Newport News Fire Department's Hazardous Materials truck. I wondered, why do we need a hazmat response for power outages? Around another corner, I saw hazmat crews kneeling in the street taking samples of a liquid and adding it to a testing kit.
During the academy, I learned that the hazmat truck is like a rolling chemistry lab. Crews with specialized training use various kits and devices to test and remove substances that could be environmental hazards.
When I talked to officials on scene, I learned the team was needed because the transformers are each filled with about 25 gallons of mineral oil. When those cracked, the oil leaked out. The hazmat team wasn't there to clean it up. Dominion Virginia Power is responsible to make arrangements for that. The crew was there to make sure the oil didn't end up in the drainage system, which would eventually flow it into the waterway. They were testing the oil because older transformers sometimes contain carcinogenic chemicals, called PCBs. The tests came back negative for the substance, an official said.
Breaking news reporter Sarah J. Ketchum writes about public safety. Have a public safety question or concern? She can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.
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