City's 911 system fails after bomb threat forces evacuation of police headquarters

Glitch occurs in backup used at emergency location

May 11, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police communications went dead yesterday morning, preventing citizens from getting through on the emergency 911 line and dispatchers from reaching officers over the airwaves.

The potentially dangerous glitch was noticed about 9: 50 a.m. and was quickly fixed. But police commanders said they have no idea how long the system was down; they said it might have been only a couple minutes, or much longer.

"It's certainly not something I want to see occur again," said Police Col. Timothy Longo.

The breakdown happened after several hundred workers were forced to evacuate the downtown police headquarters building because of a bomb threat received about 8: 30 a.m. Dispatchers and 911 operators quickly went to an emergency communications center two blocks away.

Longo said the system the workers used at the emergency communications center operated normally at first, though the antiquated computers forced operators to write caller complaints on index cards and hand them to dispatchers -- the way it was done before modern computers.

At some point, however, the entire system crashed, though it was not immediately evident to workers. Calls stopped coming in from the public, and officers in patrol cars could not be reached.

Sandra Arnette, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic, said the system was down for a short period, but she could not give a precise time.

Police were unable to say what callers heard when they dialed 911. But Longo said that all the missed calls from the public were automatically recorded by a computer at the main dispatch center at headquarters, and were returned by operators once the building was reopened about 10: 20 a.m.

If officials were unable to reach a person who called 911, a patrol car was dispatched. "By the grace of God, we didn't find any problems," Longo said. "And no concerns were expressed by the public."

Police officials declined to comment on the bomb scare, and they would not say how it was received. It was one of 17 bomb threats made to city buildings or schools yesterday.

Longo said the threat "was sufficient enough that we chose to evacuate." He said technicians are trying to determine what went wrong with the communications system so that any future transition of 911 workers to an alternate location "will seem seamless to the public."

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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