Employees evaluated after possible lightning strike at Harford 911 Center Friday

The building housing Harford County Emergency Operations Center was possibly struck by lightning as thunderstorms rolled through the late Friday afternoon into Friday evening, the county government confirmed.

Nine employees were taken University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air for evaluation. All were released by 11:15 p.m. Friday, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

A 10th employee who was affected by the incident went home under his own power, Mumby said.

The incident happened around 5:15 p.m., she said.

The 911 Center is housed on the second floor of a two-and-a-half-year-old building on Route 543 in the Hickory area, about three miles north of Bel Air. The building also serves as headquarters for the Department of Emergency Services and houses county information technology operations.

The center, which dispatches police, fire and emergency medical calls, continued operating even though 10 call takers and emergency dispatchers reported feeling ill effects from the possible lightning strike, Mumby said.

"There was no interruption in 911 service," she said. "No dropped calls, no loss of service all calls were dispatched and mitigated."

"They work so hard to keep the citizens safe, and we certainly want to be sure that they are safe," she said.

Mumby said one 911 call-taker screamed as she felt what appeared to be an electrical shock through her earpiece. Other workers in the call center felt to a "lesser degree" the effects of a possible shock, such as tingling, Mumby said.

"We wanted to be sure they were checked out by medical professionals at the hospital and given the best possible care," she said.

Mumby said the call center was busy at the time, handling calls for service related to the severe thunderstorms that called some flooding.

The majority of employees who were affected, other than the call-taker who experienced the suspected shock through her earpiece, kept working until other staffers could arrive and take their place, Mumby said.

Calls also came in from 911 centers in other jurisdictions to express concern, she said,

"We're very appreciative of those expressions of concern."

A post on the Harford Volunteer Fire and EMS Association's media Facebook Page shortly after 8 p.m. states: "Thank you for checking on our employees at the DES. It appears our building was possibly struck by lightning and we do have several dispatchers being evaluated and transported as a precautionary measure."

"We have brought additional staff in and we have continued to maintain operations," the post continued. "Thank you for your care and concern. It is truly appreciated."

Mumby said County Executive Barry Glassman had been monitoring the situation.

She said the building has lightning rods and "redundant grounding" for protection. Employees present at the time of the incident reported seeing sparks outside a window.

"It may be that the building or a rod was hit, but it was an overwhelming electrical charge that could have caused sparks," she said.

County officials suspect a cell phone tower that is near the building and on county property was hit too, according to Mumby.

"We will be doing an investigation, checking out the building, to find out what happened," she said.

Edward Hopkins, director of emergency services, was out of town at the time of the incident, but said he was informed “minutes” after it happened.

Hopkins kept in touch with the DES staff, as well as Glassman and the Maryland Emergency Management Administration, while traveling back to Harford County, and he was briefed by his staff when he returned to the building.

He said Glassman expressed “deep concern” for the welfare of the affected employees and checked in with him several times.

“We’re fairly sure the building was struck [by lightning],” Hopkins said. “We’re just trying to locate where it was stuck at this time.”

The call-taker who experienced the shock first through her headset was taking a 911 call at the time, he said.

"Despite whatever pain or discomfort she felt that was caused by the initial shock, she was able to complete the 911 call for service," Hopkins said.

She cried out in pain, and other staffers tended to her, according to Hopkins.

“Within a few minutes after that, several other employees then reported similar feelings of having some tingling and having some headaches,” he said.

Hopkins said more employees reported similar symptoms associated with an electric shock once the volume of storm-related 911 calls started to die down.

In all, 10 of the 12 employees on duty in the center reported feeling some effect, he said. Supervisors decided those who were reported shocks should be taken to the hospital to be checked out.

“When lightning its an object, you can be a certain distance away and still feel the effects of it,” Hopkins said. “We believe that shock wave resonated through the equipment and affected our employees.”

The 911 Center staffers who usually work the midnight shift were asked to come in early, and other DES employees, as well as a regional administrator from MEMA, pitched in to help monitor the effects of the storm, Hopkins said.

Representatives from neighboring jurisdictions called to check on their Harford County counterparts.

“When one system sees another system is having problems everyone rallies to back up that system,” Hopkins said.

The storms that crossed the region hit Harford around 4 p.m., according to the Fire and EMS Assocation, which also reported on its media Facebook page that volunteer fire and EMS companies were busy answering calls throughout the county.

The association reported "21 fire calls for service to include six potential lightning strikes at residences, three automatic fire alarms, two swift water rescues, and numerous other miscellaneous incidents."

EMS personnel also responded to seven routine incidents and at least four motor vehicle collisions, the association reported. None were considered life threatening. The bulk of the storm related incidents had decreased by 6 p.m.

Motorists were cautioned to stay clear of areas of high water on local highways.

This report is updated from an earlier version. All nine 911 Center employees taken to a hospital for evaluation have been released.

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