Wentworth, NC - Lightning continues to plague 911 center

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Rockingham County officials study lightning-plagued communication center 06/25/00

By JAMIE KRITZER, Staff Writer

WENTWORTH -- It's still not clear how lightning regularly hits Rockingham County's 911 center and zaps dispatchers, despite a number of mechanisms designed to defuse its destructive current.

But officials say they are not going to stop to find out how it's getting into the center.

Rather, officials with BellSouth and Commonwealth Radio -- both of which supply service to the center -- assured county officials this week that they will install more devices to block or at least redirect lightning before it enters.

It's a job with a great degree of unpredictability anytime you try to tame Mother Nature, said John McKinney, spokesman for BellSouth.

"Just about everything humanly possible has been done already," said McKinney. "We still can't determine how lightning is hitting the building. But what we do know is that we are taking every possible step so we can eliminate these access points."

Technicians from BellSouth and Commonwealth Radio met with county officials Tuesday to discuss how to better protect the 911 center and its 190-foot radio tower. The center is located in Wentworth off N.C. 65.

That meeting comes after lightning struck the center on successive days earlier this month. On June 14, lightning struck the center, entering through emergency phone lines and shocking three dispatchers on duty. Despite tingling and some numbness, all three were fine when checked out at Annie Penn Hospital.

Lightning struck the next night, diverting 911 calls to a backup system at the Reidsville police station until the system could be fixed eight hours later. The center is typically zapped at least twice each year, frying thousands of dollars of equipment.

McKinney said his company is planning to divert future strikes by attaching a one-way wire to a cable that runs into the building. Phone officials will run the wire into the ground in hopes it will conduct the lightning away from the building. BellSouth officials hope to install the wire within a week.

In the next six months, copper phone lines into the center will be replaced with less-conductive fiber optic cable and the cable relocated farther from the center, McKinney said.

Both measures are being provided as part of a service agreement the county has with BellSouth. They will not cost the county.

Electricians and officials with Commonwealth Radio spent much of this week shoring up existing systems used to ground high voltage.

An electrician began running a number of tests to determine the strength of mechanisms that ground lightning, including a cable that grounds current from the radio tower, said County Manager Jerry Myers.

"I think they've always worked hard to make it safe," said Brenda Southard, lead telecommunicator on a daytime shift.

After lightning strikes last year, the same radio and phone officials ran tests on numerous grounding devices and found that at the time it was about as reliable as it could be. Already, devices on the phone lines are programmed to redirect current away from the center when there's a surge.

No one has been injured in any of the strikes, despite fires that have started in the center and thousands of dollars in computer and telephone equipment damage.

In 1998 alone, the county filed claims with their insurer to cover $98,273 in computer and radio equipment destroyed by lightning, according to county finance records. In 1999, the county lost $48,752 worth of equipment, records show.

Total losses during last week's lightning strikes have not been tallied, county officials said.

The 911 center's brushes with Mother Nature are unusual, despite the center's claim as one of the county's highest points. It sits at an elevation of a little more than 1,000 feet next to a radio tower that rises another 190 feet.

Myers said moving the center is not practical because officials have for years discussed building it along with a new courthouse. Plans for a new courthouse, which is estimated now to cost $22 million, have been put on hold.

"The goal is to protect the people and the property," Myers said.


Feb. 11, 1998 -- $15,010

April 3, 1998 -- $3,320

June 30, 1998 -- $79,943

June 28, 1999 -- $875

July 21, 1999 -- $47,877

* All costs based on claims covered by the county's insurer, N.C. Association of County Commissioners Risk Management Pool

* Equipment includes radio and computer equipment owned by Rockingham County


-- Doris (reaper1@mindspring.com), June 27, 2000

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