Not Even Lightning Can Keep 911 Down


In our modern society, we take major conveniences for granted.

We walk into a dark room, flick a switch and the room is instantly bathed in light. We turn on a water faucet, out comes potable water. We can pick up a telephone and reach out and touch someone just about anywhere on the earth's four corners. We don't spend much time marveling at the extraordinary nature of these simple acts. Nor should we as long as we have reliable electricity, fresh water and easy communications.

A friend recently returned from a trip to Central Europe. He said that getting a working telephone was an accomplishment, and electricity in some of the smaller towns was available only part of the time. His anecdotes reminded me that only when these complicated systems are disrupted do we stop and take notice.

The same is true of our emergency services. When we dial 911, we assume there will be a dispatcher at the other end to hear our call for help and to respond appropriately with a fire truck, ambulance or police squad car. Nobody gives much thought to the system because it has always been there when we call.

However, in the past month, Carroll's emergency communications system has been knocked out of commission twice by violent thunderstorms. This remarkable system of radios, computers, telephones and humans can take incoming calls, locate the address from which the call was made, transfer the call to the proper emergency service and record this information -- all in a matter of seconds.

All of this sophisticated equipment is housed in a buff-colored concrete building built into a little hillside on Washington Road. From the outside, the Emergency Operations Center looks strong enough to withstand any natural or man-made assault.

But on June 20 and again on July 7, tens of thousands of volts of electricity surged into that fortress of a building and disabled Carroll's emergency communications system -- knocking out the radios, the computer assisted dispatch system, telephones and the computerized data base that keeps track of emergency equipment at the various firehouses.

No one is sure yet where the lightning hit. The EOC's radio tower is undamaged, leading investigators to believe that the surge entered through the telephone or electrical lines. It fried circuit boards, electrical connections and computer chips. Smoke started coming out from a section of one of the three consoles within the dispatch room.

Carroll residents calling 911 got only a busy signal, even though one of the telephone lines remained in operation.

When the system went down, "Plan B" went into effect immediately. Emergency calls were transferred to the Westminster Fire Hall, the EOC's backup center. Volunteers were called to man all of the county's 14 fire stations. As far as the emergency personnel knows, all the emergencies that occurred following the lightning strike were answered.

Most of the repairs needed to get 911 operating again were completed within hours. In fact, minutes after the strike, which occurred about 11:30 p.m., telephone, radio and computer repairmen were on the scene assessing the damage and replacing the broken equipment.

This wasn't the first time lightning has disabled the center. From 1988 to 1991, the EOC averaged a lightning strike a year, according to Scott Campbell, the fire protection engineer and assistant bureau chief of emergency services. Having two disabling strikes within 2 1/2 weeks, however, has prompted the center to hire a consultant and determine why the system appears so vulnerable.

Three days after the July 7 shutdown, the EOC was operating normally. A trio of dispatchers were at their consoles taking phone calls, sending out ambulances and fire trucks. Telephones rang, radios crackled and lights on the large consoles danced.

To the untrained eye, everything seemed in order, although a closer look revealed numerous empty slots in the console where circuit boards and electrical assemblies had been removed. Piled on the carpeted floor were the black metal panels that normally cover portions of the consoles. The wiring was exposed, giving the room a look of tangled confusion.

Dispatchers Vickey Ludwig and Tobe Carter were busy taking calls. They dispatched an ambulance to an auto accident on Route 32 near Sykesville and kept tabs on another ambulance delivering a patient to Carroll County General Hospital. With the computer-aided dispatch system up and running, when a call came in of an injury, a little display showed the number of the telephone and the address from which the call was being made, the name of the person named on the phone bill there and the nearest fire station. At the EOC, everything was back to normal.

We can take 911 for granted again. We can pick up the phone with confidence that Mr. Carter or Ms. Ludwig or any of the other dozen or so dispatchers will take the calls and respond immediately with help to handle our emergencies.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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