County officials attribute power outage at jail and offices to faulty wiring

Detention center secure

generator kicked in when electricity went off

August 20, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

A faulty underground wire was blamed for a 10-hour electrical outage yesterday in Westminster that affected the Carroll County jail, the sheriff's and the Board of Education offices.

Warden George Hardinger said staff at the detention center reported the jail's diesel-powered backup generator automatically kicked in at 1: 30 a.m. when the power outage began. At no time was security affected, said Lt. Mark Peregoy, a sheriff's spokesman. County officials were notified at 5: 25 a.m. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews were on the scene by 7 a.m., said Michael Whitson, chief of Carroll's Bureau of Buildings and Grounds.

It was unclear why jail officials did not report the outage sooner, and Hardinger said he would look into it.

The staff served breakfast to 167 inmates with minimal disruption, but Hardinger ordered an immediate conservation of electrical power, fearing the jail's generator might overheat and fail.

The jail's generator broke down in March during an electrical outage.

Whitson said a compatible backup generator was rented, brought from Baltimore and hooked up by 11: 30 a.m.

"We had to operate on the assumption that the old generator would fail -- the worst-case scenario -- and be ready for any contingency," Peregoy said.

Whitson said the faulty wiring runs underground from the courthouse annex to a transformer at the detention center, which also houses the sheriff's office, and to the Winchester Building, which houses the Board of Education offices, all on North Court Street.

The problem might have been "because of old age," but the reason had not been determined, he said.

"BGE officials are going to check their records and decide whether to replace that whole line, or let the repair suffice," Whitson said.

The outage caused only sporadic losses of power at the Board of Education, where employees were making the best of the situation, said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman.

One staff member left her desk where the lights were out and did her work in a file room that had lighting.

The building's elevators were not operating, and the stairways were dark, Gaddis said.

"We don't have any air conditioning, but it is bearable," she said.

The elevator and air conditioning were inoperable at the detention center. All nonessential computer operations were halted to lessen the strain on the generator, Peregoy said.

Lunch and dinner menus for the inmates were changed because of the outage even though the jail's kitchen uses gas for cooking, Hardinger said.

Peregoy said that the inmates were told of the power failure and understood why daily programs were canceled. Most of those programs are held in the jail's windowless multipurpose room. "If the generator would fail, you wouldn't be able to see [6 feet] in that room," he added.

The jail's emergency plan for power outages involves moving all inmates into their cells, Peregoy said. Correctional staff are given flashlights and hand-held radios to carry.

"In this case, the inmates were asleep, so they already were in their cells," he said. "When power fails, cell doors remain in an unlocked position to protect the inmates [from being trapped], but our staff can use handcuffs and leg shackles to secure the doors."

"It was nice to walk in this morning and find that our contingency emergency plan was in effect and running smoothly," Hardinger said. "There were a few questions to answer, but nothing major."

A new generator is scheduled to be installed soon in the detention center's 100-bed addition under construction. Hardinger declined to guess when the addition would be ready for occupancy.

"Once we have the new generator, our concerns will be somewhat less in the event we have a power failure," he said.

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