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County buys security system to prevent communications going offline

January 22, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- What chaos could have happened, did not. But the approximately 90 minutes that Berkeley County emergency responders worked without their digital radio communication system earlier this month was scary enough.

On the evening of Jan. 7, little more than 12 hours before 16 vehicles crashed into one another on Interstate 81, state-maintained communications equipment on North Mountain went offline, officials said Thursday.

Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth M. "Kenny" Lemaster Jr. on Thursday told the county commission that his department was forced to use mobile phones to communicate while responding to a reported burglary in process.

Lemaster said he had the 911 dispatcher repeating information to him over the phone in what could have been a "precarious" situation. As it turned out, the reported crime was deemed to be an honest mistake - the noise at the home was caused by ice that was breaking loose from the residence and falling onto the caller's deck, Lemaster said.

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Ice also snapped the commercial power line that feeds the digital trunk radio system, Berkeley County Central Dispatch director Mary Kackley said in an interview Thursday.

State officials did not realize the failure of their system, which included the backup electric supply, and Berkeley County emergency officials did not have a "redundant" security system to alert them of the failure, Kackley said.

The purchase of a security system was approved Thursday by the County Commission.

Kackley said she received permission from state officials to install what amounts to a direct connection between the county's emergency dispatch center to monitor the operation of the statewide radio communication system equipment on the mountain.

Kackley did not want to downplay the temporary loss of communication, but noted the county's previous radio system posed almost daily operational problems before it was replaced in May 2006.

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