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Pinellas County 911 system knocked out by lightning strikes

CLEARWATER — Two lightning strikes a few minutes apart knocked out Pinellas County's 911 system Friday morning, preventing nearly all calls from coming through for about 45 minutes.

The strikes crippled the primary phone system at the brand-new $81 million public safety complex on Ulmerton Road and a backup system at another location, said interim chief of staff Bruce Moeller. Calls were eventually rerouted to the St. Petersburg Police Department's communications center, Moeller said.

Technicians were still working Friday evening to get the system back to normal operation.

"We're going to fix it, we're going to clearly understand it and then take all necessary steps to learn from it and try to prevent it from happening again," Moeller said.

The outage occurred less than a week after a faulty piece of equipment at a Verizon office in Tampa caused some Pinellas 911 callers to get busy signals over a period of about 20 hours.

Friday's problem started at 11:03 a.m. when lighting struck the headquarters of Sunstar, the private ambulance company at 12490 Ulmerton Road, Moeller said. The strike sparked a small fire in the wall and damaged the building's phone system, including some equipment the county has there to back up the 911 system. At 11:06 a.m., another bolt struck the public safety complex about 2 miles to the east, causing a power surge that damaged the phone system there. For about 45 minutes, "almost 100 percent of calls" were not getting through, Moeller said. By shortly before noon, all calls were being rerouted to the communications center at the St. Petersburg Police Department.

That department had plenty of staff on hand to handle the calls until five county call takers arrived to help, said police spokesman Mike Puetz.

Officials didn't know Friday how many callers failed to get through but might be able to determine that as they analyze equipment, Moeller said. He also couldn't say with certainty if anyone suffered or died because they couldn't get through.

"We're not aware of any calls that had an adverse impact because of this," Moeller said.

The public safety complex features a 300-foot communications tower and grounding equipment to prevent surges. Moeller said the county will meet with Verizon and Duke Energy officials next week to diagnose what happened and determine whether the system can be improved.

Operating from St. Petersburg is not ideal because call takers are not in the same room with emergency dispatchers, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. That was the advantage of combining the county's 911 call center and Sheriff's Office dispatchers in the new public safety campus on Ulmerton Road.

Gualtieri called Friday's problem a "fluke thing."

"You can't control lightning," he said. "I think it shows we have a two-tiered backup plan and it worked."

Last weekend's problem started about 10 p.m. Saturday when a router at Verizon's office in Tampa failed, causing some Pinellas 911 callers to get busy signals, said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek.

According to Elek, only "a handful" of callers were affected and most could get through on the second or third try. The equipment was fixed by Sunday night, and Elek said the company is analyzing that incident to figure out how to prevent it from happening again.

County officials know of about a dozen callers who had problems getting through but there were no reports of serious consequences caused by the delay, Moeller said.

Moeller said the two incidents appear to be unrelated.

"Nonetheless it's concerning to me that we've had them in such a short period of time and that will strengthen our efforts to review the system and minimize the possibility of any future occurrences," he said.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Pinellas County 911 system knocked out by lightning strikes 08/15/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 10:25pm]

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