Report blames flaws for Pinellas 911 meltdown

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For about 45 heart pounding minutes last August no one could get through to Pinellas 911. And for hours after that, police operators inside a makeshift call center in St. Petersburg had to field every emergency call in the county because lightning zapped Pinellas County’s shining new $80 million dollar Public Safety Complex.

A just-released 341 page report now blames systematic design and construction flaws for the worst 911 meltdown ever in Pinellas County.

“I have every confidence we’ve addressed every issue,” said Bruce Moeller, Director of Safety and Emergency Services for Pinellas County. “The people of Pinellas County can stand extremely secure in knowing the 911 system’s here and it operates well.”

But that wasn’t the case on August 15, 2014 when a lightning strike–probably hitting a nearby communications tower at the Public Safety Complex– fried critical systems inside the hurricane-hardened 911 call center. The final report faults inadequate surge protection, faulty grounding, and a failure to fully test the systems for surge protection prior to opening the call center as core reasons for the meltdown.

“Additional surge protection may very well have prevented that,”‘ said Moeller. “No guarantee for that but it may have prevented that.”

Moeller insists that political pressure to open the new complex–which for the first time places all 911 and dispatch functions under the same roof inside the Sheriff’s new headquarters–had nothing to do with a failure to completely test safeguards prior to going active.

“There were a few places where testing and all of the paperwork associated with the testing weren’t completed as fully as we would have liked to have seen it,” said Moeller. 

Moeller told Eight on Your Side all of the problems associated with the lightning strike were quickly addressed and the odds of a similar strike are “astronomical.” But consultants hired by the county concluded such a strike could happen as often as every year.

Three months after the August calamity the Pinellas 911 call center computers and console communications lost power again–this time due to other wiring problems that went unnoticed after the August meltdown. Dispatchers had to go manual and use handheld two-way radios to dispatch fire and police, something they were trained to do.

Moeller insists the November incident did not create a disruption in service like the catastrophic failure in August. “We lost connectivity of our computer systems to communicate with one another in the center for a short period of time, “Moeller said.

Moeller dismisses altogether a complaint made by a woman just last month who claimed she called 911 when her son was having a seizure and the the phone just kept ringing.

“My family was let down by your system,” the woman later told a Pinellas 911 manager. Moeller insists there is no record of the woman’s call every getting through to 911. 

Pinellas 911 managers suggested she contact her cell phone provider T-Mobile about the problem.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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