911 center gets storm protection

Officials take steps after building was struck by lightning twice

GREENFIELD — After the county’s emergency dispatch center was struck by lightning twice this summer, county officials have taken steps to make the building safer than ever before.

The county purchased a lightning suppression system for the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center from EMP Solutions, a Fishers-based technology company, officials said.

The system, which cost the county $17,500 and was installed this week, protects a building during a thunderstorm, eliminating lightning strikes in the area — something the local emergency operations center has struggled with in the past.

The building, which houses the 911 dispatch center, is more susceptible to lightning strikes than any other county-owned building because of its location, director John Jokantas said. The 911 center sits in the 600 block of South Franklin Street, surrounded by cornfields.

When a storm rolls in, the 911 center, with its tall radio towers, is the first building it meets just as the dark clouds are ready to release buildup energy as lightning, Jokantas said.

Nationally, lightning strikes cause upward of $100 million in damages each year, according to the National Weather Service. Each year lightning causes an average of 93 deaths and 300 injuries in the United States, the weather service said.

Despite having a grounding system that’s meant to direct the electrical energy produced by a heavy storm away from the building, the 911 center has been struck by lightning at least four times in the past two years. This includes an instance in late August when the center was struck by lightning twice in five minutes during a particularly nasty storm, Jokantas said.

Though the 911 center has never lost power — meaning no 911 calls went unanswered — the strikes during that summer thunderstorm caused about $4,000 in damage to the county’s radio equipment, he said.

“We can’t keep sitting out here being a target,” Jokantas said. “We had to do something.”

So he began researching ways to further protect the building and the employees who work inside. He stumbled upon information about EMP Solutions’ new technology and approached the Hancock County Board of Commissioners in early November about making the purchase. Commissioners unanimously approved it.

The lightning suppressor is surprisingly small, said Jay Kothari, president of EMP Solutions. It stands about 15 inches tall and 10 inches wide, and it is mounted onto the highest made-of-metal point of any electrical tower, such as the radio towers immediately behind the 911 center.

From there in the sky, it acts as a capacitor to eliminate the electrically-charged ions floating in the atmosphere during a thunderstorm that form lightning, Kothari said, and essentially will camouflage the 911 center’s property during a storm in a 100-meter radius.

That can give county residents great peace of mind, Jokantas said.

In the worst-case scenarios, the 911 center would be completely shut down after a lightning strike, whether it be because of a fire or because the equipment was so badly damaged by the electrical shock, he said.

With the lightning suppressor in place, those risks are nearly eliminated, Kothari said.

In roughly 12 years, no lightning strikes have been reported at the more than 8,000 locations where EMP Solutions has installed lightning suppressors worldwide, he said.

The device that was installed at the 911 center will last the county 20 years. Should a lightning strike occur near the building in that time, EMP Solutions will cover the cost of any repairs up to $500,000, Kothari said.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.