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Central Alarm marks 25 years

August 23, 2000

Central Alarm marks 25 years



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Central AlarmAt 2:50 a.m. twenty-five years ago today, Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications officially went on the air and dispatched its first ambulance less than nine hours later.

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Beginning Aug. 24, 1975, all fire and ambulance calls were dispatched from a central location in the basement of the Washington County Office Building at 35 W. Washington St., where it remains.

The call came in at 11:21 a.m. "A woman who lived in the 100 block of John Street called to say her sons had been in an accident the night before and were complaining of pain," said Robert Kefauver, one of the four original dispatchers, who still works at what is today a state-of-the-art center.

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Community Rescue Service sent Ambulance 751 to the scene, Kefauver recalled as he looked over that first day's log, which was handwritten on notebook paper.

Before Aug. 24, 1975, county fire companies took emergency phone calls at their stations, places of business or private homes.

The emergency telephone for one rural fire company was on a utility pole outside a private residence.

"All Hagerstown Fire Department equipment was alerted from a centralized unit at the First Hose Fire Company on South Potomac Street then," Kefauver said.

Use of the emergency number 911 was still on the drawing boards back in 1975 and was introduced in Washington County in 1984, boosting calls to fire, ambulance and police.

There have been a lot of changes over the years, according to Ron Karn, another of the original four, who is now the emergency program manager/chief.

"We handled about 9,000 calls that first full year, 1975-76," Karn said.

At the beginning, Walter Murray was the chief of what became commonly known as Central Alarm. When Murray left, Karn took over.

"We've had good people over the years," Karn said. The other two "originals" who still work at the center are Sid Mills and David Pheil.

"I first got interested as a volunteer in fire and rescue work and then I got into this," said Mills, who is deputy chief. "It has really changed since we started."

These days, computers are much more a part of the system, Mills said. A lot more calls come in now, especially since 911 includes police.

Six years after 911 was introduced, the enhanced 911 system was installed, Karn said. "That provides automatic location and call-back phone number."

That's a far cry from how calls were handled 25 years ago. Tones sent out from Central Alarm activated alarms at the fire halls. In some cases, members had special-tone radios that only came on when their company got a call.

There were some conflicts at first, Kefauver said. Some fire companies were unsure whether a centralized dispatching system would work.

"But when we started up that day in August 1975, all were on board," Kefauver said.

Some of the major calls during his 25 years have included the big Hagerstown Lumber Co. fire in 1976, the Creasey fire in downtown Hagerstown in November 1977 and Paramount Feed Mill in September 1981.

"There was the blizzard of 1996 when we were in here for 24 hours straight," Kefauver said.

In June 1998, a tornado went through the Halfway area, toppling trees and power lines and utility poles.

"We had extra people come in but we didn't have enough telephone positions to handle all the calls," Kefauver said.

More information about Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications is available at its Web site, www.washcofrc.org, which has been on the Internet for about a year.

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