Lightning struck the Martha’s Vineyard Airport during a series of thunderstorms that swept the Island over the weekend, knocking out the Islandwide emergency communications center computer server that operates in the main tower. The Dukes County Sheriff said yesterday damage and lost equipment were estimated at $100,000.

The lightning strike took out the radio, telephone and computer lines that the communications system uses to relay emergency calls to towns. All towns on the Vineyard are connected to the server at the airport, and as a result, all town dispatchers were affected.

“We think it hit an electrical line on the tarmac area,” Sheriff Michael McCormack said yesterday. “It was so close that it came in and burned everything up.” He said after he learned of the outage he made emergency calls to the West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs fire departments to begin dispatching all 911 calls from those locations. Every call has been answered with no interruptions in emergency response, the sheriff said.

“Subsequently, we brought in an emergency command vehicle and hooked it up to the highest antenna tower at the airport,” Sheriff McCormack said. “We’re dispatching from the command vehicle or the West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs fire departments.”

The communications center has been closed since Friday, and Sheriff McCormack said he expects it to remain closed for the next few days. In the meantime, his office will be funneling all calls through the mobile command unit until further notice.

On Saturday, Sheriff McCormack called a meeting of all police, fire, and emergency services town chiefs to discuss how to proceed following the strike. “Everyone has been extremely cooperative. It’s an act of God that happened, and everyone’s cooperating to the best of our abilities,” the sheriff said.

Airport terminal
Some systems were down, but no flights were cancelled. — Ray Ewing

Martha’s Vineyard Airport manager Sean Flynn could not comment on the current state of the system for security reasons, but he said no flights had been cancelled as a result of the outage.

A Cape Air employee said that everything was operating normally; however, there was some minor inconvenience as the public announcement system was also damaged in the strike and not working. As a result, airline counter workers were calling out announcements to passengers to begin screening and boarding processes with no amplification beyond their own voices. Another airport employee said he was not able to use his key card to swipe into secure locations because that system was also down, and had to knock on doors to be let in.

Sheriff McCormack said he put in a call first thing Monday morning to the state Department of Public Safety. After a conference call with Secretary of Public Safety Mary Beth Heffernan yesterday afternoon, he said the state understood the situation and offered as much assistance as possible.

“They will later [Monday and Tuesday] begin to start to seek funds that would support the replacement of the equipment,” the sheriff said, adding: “I’ll be happy when they call and identify the funding source.”

Yesterday afternoon, Verizon, Comcast, computer technicians and electricians were on scene at the command center to begin to assess the damage. “It’s a multi-component piece up there, so everyone who has a component is working on it,” Mr. McCormack said. He said the telephone service alone that was burned out will cost $25,000.

Colin Ewing
Colin Ewing at Cape Air, where flights were called out the old-fashioned way. — Ray Ewing

He said he is hoping the state will foot the entire bill. “It was unforeseen and not built into my operating budget,” he said. “If it doesn’t come from [the state], then I’ll have to take it out of the operating budget, which will be a huge hit, but we’ll fix it,” he added.

His biggest concern was for the dispatchers who have been working 12-hour shifts and will continue to do so until the problem is resolved, hopefully in the next day or two. “The poor dispatchers without any time off is where the burden is and we can’t have just anyone answer a 911 call,” the sheriff said. “We have it under control, and all emergency calls have been answered and dispatched.”