NEW CUMBERLAND - At the height of Wednesday's thunderstorms, a lightning strike knocked out Hancock County's emergency radio system and officials had to improvise to make sure that calls were covered.
The use of telephones and cell phones made up for what was lacking in emergency dispatching that day. However, as of late Friday, emergency responders were still on backup, awaiting repairs to the main system.
"Right now, there's no safety issues as far as the public goes. We're going to get out where we need to go," said Rick Jones, president of the Hancock County Firefighters Association. "But communications become spotty down in the hollow."
"It doesn't affect our ability to respond," Sheriff Mike White said. "The biggest issue is officer safety. We do have cell phones, so if we can't reach an officer on his car radio, we will use the cell phone."
Problems began early Wednesday afternoon, when severe thunderstorms rolled through the area and a lightning strike damaged a 100-foot radio tower on County Road 208. The tower is part of the countywide emergency radio system, which includes 911 and dispatching for the Hancock County Sheriff's Department and the six volunteer fire departments.
The 911 system was not affected, but the 911 center's ability to dispatch for different departments was for a time, officials said.
The affected tower has special grounding that protects the radio equipment when there is a direct lightning strike, but Wednesday's strike was from the ground up, complicating matters, said Tom Zielinsky, executive director of the Hancock County Office of Technology and Communications.
"It did some significant damage, but we were able to get on the backup system," Zielinsky said. "Hopefully, we will have everything corrected (on Friday)."
The lightning actually hit a telephone pole on County Road 208 and was carried through the ground to the radio tower, the northernmost tower in the system, Zielinsky said.
"It knocked out the main communications, a channel bank, that controls the telephone signal into that building," he said. "Where the lightning came up from the ground, it just basically melted the box, it was so intense."
Repairs were made on Thursday, but when it came time to switch from backup to the main system, the switch could not be made, Jones said. "We're still on backup," he said Friday afternoon.
"Usually ... they have things up and working within a day. This is the first long period where we've been on a backup system in about a year," Jones said, referring to Frontier Communications and Lauttamus Communications & Security, of Weirton.
A new part was overnighted to the county on Thursday and was scheduled to be installed on Friday, Zielinsky said.
Volunteer firefighters from Newell and Lawrenceville relied on old-fashioned telephone communications to respond to a fire and possible lightning strike at Washington School and Murray roads on Wednesday. Officials from both departments were at a telecommunications meeting in Newell when the fire was reported.
"All the radio communications were down," said Lawrenceville Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Ober, who was at the meeting with Newell Assistant Fire Chief Tim Steele. "The station phone rang, advising us of the fire."
"Good thing our dispatch center had all the phone numbers and started making phone calls to all the fire departments," Jones said. "They did a good job and got everybody where they needed to be."
Zielinsky said further grounding at the tower site may have to be installed to prevent future outages. Even as repairs are being made, county officials are preparing to build a new home for the Office of Emergency Management and the 911 center.
On Thursday, Hancock County commissioners approved a payment of $150,000 to L.R. Kimball, an architect and engineering firm from Ebensburg, Pa., for the design development and construction document phases of the building.
L.R. Kimball recently completed a floor plan for the building, which will be built across from the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center on state Route 2. The building will be part of a complex that also will include a new home for the Hancock County Health Department.
Once the next two phases are complete, the project should be ready for construction bidding in October, Zielinsky said.
The Office of Emergency Management and 911 center currently are housed in the Hancock County courthouse.
"You're looking at a really tiny space," Zielinsky said.
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