FLORENCE COUNTY, SC – Florence County 911/Central Dispatch was named SC APCO/NENA 911 Center of the Year on Friday at the annual SC APCO/NENA Conference.
“This award really means a lot to us this year,” Mitch Fulmore, Florence County Central Dispatch Manager said in a press release. “We have worked short staffed and many hours of overtime through the landfall of Hurricane Matthew and to still be able to provide the same high level of service, is truly amazing. Time and time again our [Telecommunications Officers] have shown their dedication to their job and their motivation to helping the public and the responders they dispatch for. This award goes to show just how great our staff is.”
The period leading up to Hurricane Matthew’s arrival and the days following presented numerous challenges to the employees, however, they rose to the occasion, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. As the storm approached, commercial electrical service at Central failed and the center switched to its backup generator power, which it would operate on for the next five days.
Two shifts of telecommunication officers were brought into Central to cover each 12 hours period during the storm. This proved to be a good decision as the extensive flooding limited the ability to get TCOs to and from work and the call volume would have quickly overwhelmed a single shift. To provide adequate work space for the additional TCOs to operate, administrative offices were converted into temporary dispatch positions.
As the storm approached and the rainfall and wind increased, the call volume began to steadily rise. The day before landfall the call volume jumped from our normal 463 calls for service per day to 888. On Oct 8, 2016, the day of landfall, the call volume skyrocketed to 3,648 generating 425 calls per hour at the height of the storm. Calls for service slowly tapered off to 2,179 the day following the storm. Call volumes remained above 1,000 per day until Oct 15 which reflects the public’s difficulty in dealing with the flooding and wide spread damage.
Late in the evening on the day of landfall, staff noticed a faint feed over between 911 and administrative lines. Technicians looking for the cause of the problem quickly discovered that water was entering Central from below. This water, some of the torrential rain which was still falling, had overtopped storm drains and was backing up under the raised floors where it was submerging Cat 6 cabling and electrical connectors. It was clear that action had to be taken quickly or Central would shortly lose communications with the public and responders.
Because it was impossible to lift the cabling above the rising water, the only option was to pump the water from under the raised flooring. To accomplish this, staff members organized a bucket brigade of inmates from the correction facility next door. Using several shopvacs, the water was vacuumed from below the floor decking and emptied into 55-gallon trach cans which were then rolled outside and dumped. This process, taking place all around the feet of TCOs who continued to receive 911 calls and dispatch responders, continued through the night. In the morning the rain let up enough to allow the drainage system to return to its normal operating capacity. During the night, more than 1,200 gallons of water was pumped from Central.
The Internet provider for Florence County was flooded by Matthew. This resulted in the loss of Internet service in Central as well as the loss of email and administrative VOIP phone service. Those TCOs working in Central relied on cellular and satellite phone service to remain in operation. Unknown at the time, this loss of internet access would soon have even greater implications for Central.
The air conditioning units in the data center, which housed network servers and Central’s critically important Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, failed. Overheating caused a shutdown of the data center so CAD, GIS and mapping systems immediately went down. The compromise of the county’s Internet provider prevented the automatic rollover of the CAD function from the primary data center to the county’s second data center. During the time it took technicians to restore generator power to the primary data center air conditioners, lower the temperature in the data center to allow the servers to operate and then reboot CAD, TCOs resorted to using a paper backup system and printed run books and maps to substitute for CAD.
In the days following landfall, TCOs were transported to and from work by four-wheel drive vehicles due to Hurricane Matthew flooding. Two TCOs who were not on shift when the storm made landfall were totally isolated and inaccessible for two days due to the floods. Several other TCOs were storm victims who received wind and flood damage at their homes; however, they continued to work their assigned shifts throughout the event. During the Hurricane Matthew response, the TCOs in Central worked, in addition to their normal shifts, 394 hours of overtime.
Each challenge or system failure presented to Central through the two-week response to Matthew was addressed and overcome by dedicate staff members, determine to accomplish their mission.
During Hurricane Matthew and its aftermath, Florence County Central Dispatch never dropped a 911 call or lost radio contact with the agencies it dispatches.