Lightning damages emergency dispatch communications

A new system will have to be purchased. The cost is expected to more than wipe out the agency's reserves.

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WALLA WALLA -- WESCOM, the organization in charge of managing emergency dispatch communications throughout the county, will most likely see its entire reserves of $187,000 used up and still need an additional $75,000 because of lightning strikes at two communication towers.

WESCOM Public Safety Communication Manager Steve Ruley said around May 20 thunderclouds sweeping across the county hit at least two high-altitude microwave transmission towers in the Eureka area and Coppei Mountain, seriously hampering communications within a network of five microwave communication points.

Communication between dispatch and Walla Walla County Fire District Five, which serves Burbank, was completely lost as a result; communication to that station is currently being routed through Franklin County Emergency Dispatch.

"Burbank lost it completely, but the other ones are still able to hear, but it is very low quality ... We have been very lucky because this has been a very slow fire season," Ruley said.

The extent of the damage was not readily apparent after the lightning storm, and the remote locations of the Eureka and Coppei Mountain towers slowed assessments and repairs, Ruley said.

Many of the damaged components were specifically engineered for Walla Walla County, and replacement parts are no longer available, he added.

WESCOM is in the process of purchasing a new microwave system for $261,925; that system will be better equipped to handle future lightning strikes and be in place in about 30 days, Ruley said.

WESCOM is a countywide dispatch agency paid for by all the emergency services agencies in Walla Walla County, including all fire departments, law enforcement departments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Ruley was uncertain how board members would go about making up the shortfall for the new equipment, as well as building up the reserves again.

Insurance might cover some of the damage, Ruley said.

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