MOUNT VERNON — A lightning strike seriously damaged radio equipment at the Knox County 9-1-1 center at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office on Upper Gilchrist Road, Sunday afternoon.
According to Brian Hess, Knox County EMA director/9-1-1 coordinator, the lightning strike was seen and heard by dispatchers in the office shortly after 4 p.m.
“It affected 70 percent of all the radio equipment in the dispatch center,” Hess said.
He said the dollar amount of damages would be “quite high,” but was not able to estimate the amount at this time.
The strike took out the county fire and EMS channel, which is used by all of the fire and EMS departments in the county except for the Mount Vernon Fire Department. The MVFD has its own channel at the city dispatch center at the Mount Vernon Police Department.
Dispatchers saw the strike outside the building and heard a loud crack.
“They immediately noticed an error message on the display screen,” Hess said. “We were able to get county fire back online right after the strike.”
Due to the level of damage to the equipment, the radio repair techs from VASU Communications were not able to guarantee the county fire channel could remain online. All county fire communication was taken off the county fire channel and put on the city fire channel. The switch happened around midnight.
“We didn’t want to take the risk of it not working when we needed it, so I made the decision to make the change,” Hess said.
“I was able to contact all chief officers and make them aware of the switch,” Hess said around 3 this morning.
Hess said the additional radio traffic would not be a problem for the dispatchers at the city dispatch center, and would not overload the system.
“I increased my staffing at the city,” he explained. “There is absolutely no concern about overloading the system. Our dispatchers are trained for these exact situations.”
The new Emergitech software was not damaged, according to Hess. All of the damage was to communications hardware.
Hess said the new software made changing the fire channel an easier switch for dispatchers and first responders.
“The possibility of this exact situation was a factor in making the decision to go with Emergitech,” Hess said. “Essentially, both dispatch centers operate as one.”
Hess credited lead dispatcher Mark Haver and dispatcher Clay Foster, who were working at the time of the lightning strike, with quick actions which prevented any radio communication from being lost.
“They are to be commended for their quick response and quickly identifying the problem and taking the appropriate action,” Hess said.
Hess said the system could take one day to two weeks to repair. He said the damage at the sheriff’s office was all internal radio damage. No structural damage was reported.