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When lightning took down 911 in Beaufort Co., there was no backup plan

When a lightning strike left many Beaufort County residents with no way to call 911 on mobile phones this weekend, the county had no plan for an alternate number to call for help, the county’s top emergency management official said Wednesday.

The inability to reach emergency dispatchers delayed firefighters’ response to a massive blaze that destroyed a Lady’s Island home Sunday, the homeowners believe.

When an alternate number went out more than 12 hours after emergency administrators knew of the outage, the county’s emergency management director had not tried to reach the alternate number by cellphone and didn’t know whether cellphones were able to connect, he said.

Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, commander of the Beaufort County Emergency Management Division, helps plan for and respond to disasters and emergencies such as storms and hurricanes in the county and is paid an annual salary of $106,693 as of June. He said the outage was the first known failure of its kind since 911 service came to the county in 1989.

“I cannot write a plan for every possible eventuality,” Baxley said when asked if planning for an emergency such as the 911 outage was part of his job. “I cannot anticipate everything that can possibly go wrong.”

As storms swept through the area Sunday, lightning damaged a selective router at a CenturyLink complex in downtown Beaufort where all 911 calls in Beaufort County are funneled and distributed to the proper dispatch center. The damaged router prevented mobile phones from reaching emergency dispatchers, but landline calls were not affected, CenturyLink said in an emailed statement.

Beaufort County emergency officials learned of the 911 outage at 5:14 p.m. Sunday, Baxley said.

The first message alerting the public to the failure and encouraging the use of a landline to reach dispatchers came three hours later.

“We were working to fix the problem,” Baxley said. “And we probably could have sent out a Nixle message earlier and that would be on me, because I was trying to get to the bottom of the problem and get it fixed.”

An alternate number for Beaufort County residents to reach emergency dispatch was first sent out via the neighborhood website and phone application NextDoor at 6:30 a.m. Monday.

Jasper County provided an alternate number for residents at 8:12 p.m. Sunday.

In Beaufort County, a message on the registration-based Nixle service with the alternate number was sent to county residents at 6:45 a.m. Monday.

About 35,000 county residents are on NextDoor, and about 25,000 residents are registered for the text messages and emails sent by the Nixle alert system, Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bob Bromage said.

Baxley said he was hesitant to offer an alternate number because the number doesn’t provide dispatchers the same information as the emergency dispatch system and he didn’t want residents to log the number to use for future emergencies. A nonemergency dispatch number was also inaccessible by mobile phones during the outage.

Baxley said officials were made aware of the outage by Hilton Head Island fire dispatchers who began receiving calls meant for other areas. Hilton Head was not affected by the failed equipment, a fire official there said.

Baxley directed questions about the specific equipment failure to Centurylink, the county’s longtime contractor for emergency communications. He said the company was called and sent technicians as soon as the county knew of the problem.

“This is the first time it’s ever failed that I know about,” Baxley said Tuesday. “There is no way to drill (prepare for such an occurrence). It’s CenturyLink equipment. When it fails, we’re at their mercy until they can repair it.”

In response to a phone message left Tuesday, CenturyLink said in an emailed statement that a lightning strike to Beaufort’s central office affected 911 calls by cellphone in Beaufort, Hampton and Jasper counties and that service was restored by 9 a.m. Monday.

The repair required CenturyLink retrieve necessary equipment from Jacksonville, Bromage said.

“Although we cannot prevent acts of nature, we do work hard to restore service as quickly as possible,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Keith and Stephanie Guest, who own the Lady’s Island mansion that caught fire during the lightning storm at about 4:10 p.m. and later burned, said they couldn’t reach 911 from cellphones and that their landline didn’t have a dial tone. After talking with firefighters, Stephanie Guest said she believed that damage to the home would have been limited had calls immediately gone through.

The Guests called friends on their cellphones who then tried to reach dispatchers in other areas, they said.

Baxley said he is reaching out to other emergency managers for thoughts on handling such a system failure and that he would push information out sooner if 911 goes down again.

He said an alternate number might be the solution in the future, but that emergency officials would evaluate other options.