PA: 911 out for 11 hours : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Delco probing failure of 911 Lightning hit a tower, disabling the system for more than 11 hours. Bell Atlantic is seeking a cause. By Dan Hardy INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

As a series of storm fronts swept through Delaware County Sunday afternoon, the county's 911 emergency calling system was knocked out for more than 11 hours, and its primary backup was not activated.

Fortunately, county officials said, no serious problems were caused by the breakdown. Alternate telephone numbers were quickly publicized and were used to take calls until the system was restored at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

Wallace H. Nunn, County Council chairman, said yesterday that he had asked the state Public Utility Commission and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to conduct an investigation.

"We want to make sure this never happens again," Nunn said. "This is a critical system for emergency situations. When it was down, a key piece in the government's service was absent, and something very bad could have happened."

Haverford and Ridley Townships, which have their own emergency calling systems, were unaffected.

County officials said that Bell Atlantic failed to activate the county's backup system because a key Bell technician was unreachable. A Bell Atlantic spokeswoman said the company had not yet determined why the backup was not put into operation.

County spokesman William A. Lovejoy said yesterday that at 4:15 p.m. Sunday, a lightning bolt hit the 300-foot-high tower that holds 911 antennas at the county's Emergency Communications Center in Lima. Switches inside the communications center were short-circuited, and "the room went silent," said Edwin J. Truitt, county emergency communications director. Dispatchers were able to make radio calls to police and firefighters, he said, but they could not receive 911 calls.

Truitt said Bell Atlantic, from which the county leases the 911 system, sent out a repair crew. That crew was unable to contact the Bell Atlantic person who should have been able to switch to a backup 911 system at the county government center in Media. "They couldn't find the guy," he said.

Jim Knapp, the county's telecommunications director, said that in March, the county switched to a new, computer-based 911 system, and the old, telephone-console-based one was being installed at the government center as a backup. When that installation is completed, he said, "the emergency communications center can throw a switch and [immediately] go over to the backup."

One technician was overseeing both the installation of the new system and the backup, Knapp said, and the process had not been completed. Instead, a Bell Atlantic technician had to key in the switchover. "The telephone company dispatch people could not contact that translation person," Knapp said. "If they had been able to, it would have taken about two minutes" to switch over, he said.

Sharon Shaffer, Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, said yesterday that "the difficulty was definitely our inability to kick up the backup system." She said she did not know whether the failure was caused by inability to contact the proper person. "We don't know what the problem was. Obviously something failed to happen on our side," she said. "We're trying very hard to find out. . . . We take this very seriously."

Shaffer said she did not know whether there had been an inordinate delay in fully installing the backup system. "I don't know what commitment we made in terms of how long it would take," she said.

Truitt, the emergency communications director, said he also questioned why both switches connected to the communications tower in Lima were short-circuited by lightning when one of them was supposed to serve as a backup for the other. "I'd like to know if there was a grounding problem," he said.

Shaffer said the company was still investigating that matter. She added that it had taken over 11 hours to repair the system, because the lightning strike was so severe that the spare parts on hand had to be supplemented by additional parts.

According to the National Weather Service, there were 300 lightning strikes between 4 and 5 p.m. Sunday, along with heavy local flooding, reports of funnel clouds, and hailstones the size of dimes in Sharon Hill. About 19,000 people lost electric power, a Peco Energy Co. spokesman said. Power was restored to most homes by yesterday morning.

-- Martin Thompson (, June 21, 2000

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