Agency adjusts 911 phone service

Incoming lines increased on backup system after callers fail to get through

August 18, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Howard County police have changed their backup 911 system to accommodate more calls after residents said they had difficulty reporting a house fire Aug. 3.

The system was adjusted last week and now has five incoming lines and one outgoing. Previously, the backup system had three incoming and three outgoing lines.

"The capacity may not have been at a level we would have liked ... and we recognized the need to evaluate our level of incoming phone lines," said Capt. Greg Marshall, who oversees communications for the Howard County Police Department.

The call center had problems Aug. 3 when a Clarksville house owned by Xaver Gramkow was hit by lightning and caught fire about 4 p.m. The fire caused about $800,000 in damage and left the house uninhabitable.

The owner of the home and several neighbors said they called 911 but got busy signals for nearly a half-hour.

Police said that some calls might not have gone through, but they also said that they received calls about the Gramkow house and were able to get emergency personnel to the scene quickly.

Police said the call problems might have been related to their backup 911 call system. The department's primary, nine-line 911 call system was damaged, police said, when lightning struck a communications tower at the District Court building and the George Howard Building, which houses the department's 911 communication center.

Because of the damage, the department automatically switched to the secondary system, Marshall said. Although the first calls reporting the fire got through and police and firefighters were dispatched, later calls might not have gone through, Marshall added.

Fire officials were notified of the blaze at 4:03 p.m. and are reviewing emergency tapes to determine exactly when crews arrived at the scene. Fire officials estimated it took crews about 10 or 15 minutes to arrive after they received the call.

Police are unsure why some calls did not go through, but they believe the backup system's three incoming lines might have been overloaded.

About the time of the fire, the department received more than 70 emergency calls, among them reports of several traffic accidents, traffic-light outages and a barn fire, police said.

"So much was going on, we might have been overloaded," Marshall said.

In addition to changing the backup system, the department is building a new backup call center in the southern part of the county.

That center, which will have increased phone and computer capacity, should be operational next month, Marshall said.

Despite questions about the 911 calls and the fact that his house was destroyed, Gramkow said he bears no ill will toward emergency services.

"What happened was beyond the control of the county. ... The only thing you can blame it on is nature," he said.

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