Around 6 p.m., lightning hit the Jacksonville Police Department, destroying the two dispatch consoles, six computers, a VHF radio, the 911 call screen, and various video cameras and recording devices within the building, Assistant Chief Bill Wineman said Monday.
He estimated the department will have to fork out $30,000 to repair the damage. Chief Tommy Thompson said the cost could be even higher – between $40,000 and $50,000.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said Wineman, who expected to install a newer, high-tech dispatch system Tuesday morning but will have to put installation on hold for a day while the server is repaired.
Shana Maddox was the sole dispatcher working when the lightning struck. She was taking a call from a patrol officer when it happened.
“I jumped,” she said. “Everything went black. I really didn’t know what had happened.”
A couple hours before Jacksonville’s system was scorched, another bolt hit a Calhoun County Highway Department building at McClellan.
James Poe, information technology director for the county, said the strike destroyed the Highway Department’s e-mail system and about 30 telephones. He estimates the damage totals between $10,000 and $15,000 – a hefty price to pay for a single lightning strike.
“This one thing chews up the rest of my (technology) budget for the rest of the year,” Poe said. “That always hurts.”
Since Friday, Anniston-based McCord Communications has been working to repair the damaged technology at both departments, as part of the company’s contract with the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
But in the meantime, spokespeople from both departments said they have been able to keep communication channels open.
According to Wineman, Jacksonville police dispatchers are using back-up telephones and walkie-talkies to notify patrolmen of emergencies and other response situations. Although he said communication was more challenging and slower than usual, he also emphasized police response has not been negatively affected. One of the two damaged consoles in the 800 megahertz dispatch system was repaired Saturday. The system switch – which connects the consoles to the main server – was destroyed by the lightning bolt, but Wineman had a smaller replacement switch that is working until the new part is delivered today.
Wineman said the department was fortunate that most of its phone lines continued to work after the lightning strike, which allowed dispatchers to continue to receive and respond to emergency calls, albeit, without the aid of a computer screen.
At the Highway Department, Poe said, employees have kept in contact through telephone calls in lieu of a working e-mail system. He said he expected data services to be repaired sometime this week.
Both departments had surge protectors in place, but those rarely work when a building suffers a direct lightning hit, said Marissa Brimer, public information officer for the Calhoun County EMA.
The Star called the EMA and Jacksonville police multiple times over the weekend, but neither agency reported the lightning strikes until Monday.
Brimer said she had left the EMA office at 4:30 Friday afternoon and didn’t know why the agency hadn’t been able to inform The Star about the lightning damage. Thompson told The Star Monday that the weekend dispatchers probably didn’t consider the lightning strike newsworthy. Maddox said dispatchers are not authorized to give out any information under any circumstances.
“The man (from The Star) called that night (the lightning hit) and asked if there was any storm damage, and I said, ‘no,’” she said.
Thompson said lightning last hit the Jacksonville Police Department 25 years ago.