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911 Center deals with high volume of calls during snow storms

December 27, 2012|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Gary Penner clears sidewalks packed with ice covered snow in Hagerstown Thursday morning.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Local law-enforcement agencies and Washington County 911 dispatchers were kept busy handling more than 100 traffic accidents that were reported during a winter storm that dumped nearly 2.5 inches of ice and snow on Hagerstown and the surrounding areas Wednesday.

Kevin Lewis, director at the Washington County Division of Fire and Emergency Services, said Thursday that 122 of the 911 center’s 995 inbound calls on Wednesday were for traffic accidents that involved injuries or property damage.

There was no breakdown showing how many of the other calls were for disabled vehicles or minor accidents that didn’t involve officers.

“We basically brought in additional personnel,” Lewis said Thursday morning. “We actually went out to pick up some of the staff using four-wheel drive vehicles.”

Lewis said the 911 center averaged 60 calls per hour on Wednesday, compared to 35 calls an hour a week earlier.

Maryland State Police also called in extra personnel to help with the high volume of calls.

First Sgt. Kevin Lewis, who is no relation to the Kevin Lewis at Emergency Services, said the state police barrack in Hagerstown called five troopers to start their shifts early, bumping up the available work force to nine at the peak of the storm. In addition, he said, the dayshift was held over to work late.

“It did become overwhelming with the number of calls we had,” 1st Sgt. Lewis said. “We try to prepare the best we can, but we have a finite number of personnel.”

The Hagerstown barrack processed 68 property damage accidents, and 16 personal injury collisions on Wednesday, according to Washington County Emergency Services statistics. By 1st Sgt. Lewis’ account, troopers responded to about 100 accidents on Wednesday.

Many of those accidents occurred on Interstates 70 and 81, 1st Sgt. Lewis said.

Interstate 68 near Sideling Hill was backed up because cars and trucks were having a hard time getting traction on the steep roadway, and was shut down from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. from Hancock west to the Allegany County line. Eastbound on I-68 was closed in the same area at some point in the afternoon.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office responded to 20 property damage collisions and five personal injury collisions, according to emergency services.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Deputy 1st Class Scott Buskirk said he helped state police work accidents on I-68 and I-70 during the storm.

He said he responded to multiple accidents between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Those accidents, he said, included mostly fender benders, vehicles in ditches and tractor-trailers that were jackknifed on the highway.

“It was pretty rough,” Buskirk said. “The traffic was a big factor. With all the traffic, the (salt) trucks couldn’t get anything done.”

He said Wednesday marked the second worst snow storm that he has seen in his 12 years with the sheriff’s office. The worst day, he said, occurred in January 2011, when a storm snarled traffic on I-70 in Washington County for about 12 hours.

Deputy 1st Class Jeremey Kuhnke said he saw an accident occur at the intersection of Halfway and Massey boulevards on Wednesday, when a sport-utility vehicle slid about 50 feet and struck another vehicle.

“It was the typical SUV driver who thought he was invincible in the snow,” Kuhnke said.

He said he only handled two accidents on Wednesday because he was tied up doing administrative work.

In Hagerstown, officers responded to 10 property damage collisions and three personal injury collisions, statistics show.

Patrolman Mike Alderton said police closed of the 300 block of East Washington Street near Mulberry Street on Wednesday because vehicles couldn’t get traction on the hill.

He said he responded to one accident in the city on Wednesday, but the seven officers on his shift from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. handled a total of 10 accidents.

“Yesterday was a mess,” Alderton said. “The  storm came out of nowhere.”

He said the department didn’t have to call in additional officers, but a few from the day shift stayed late to cover for officers who had a hard time getting to work for the evening shift.

“It’s probably one of the worst (storms) over the last couple of years, just because there were so many people on the roads and it was an unexpected storm,” Alderton said.

In addition to police, several tow truck companies stayed busy.

Stacey Fuhrman, office manager at Blue Gray Towing in Hagerstown, said the company responded to 87 calls Wednesday.

“A lot of them were winch-outs for vehicles that ran off the road,” she said.

Fuhrman said ice and snow storms are unfortunate for a lot of motorists, but can provide a financial boost to tow truck companies by increasing business two to three times.

She said Blue Gray charges $65 for local tows, and a minimum of $85 to salvage vehicles with a winch.

Fuhrman said the company’s drivers also drove accident victims to local hotels on Wednesday.

Blue Gray remained busy on Thursday, she said, towing vehicles that were wrecked Wednesday to a number of different destinations.

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