Flagler County’s 911 dispatchers had to evacuate their digs at the Emergency Operations Center this morning (Jan. 18) when a routine test of the fire-extinguishing system went awry and literally exploded the chamber’s ceiling tiles off their hinges in a deafening, pressure-spewing roar. No one was hurt, nor was any equipment damaged. But the dispatch center has to be cleaned up and the ceiling fixed, which may take 24 or 48 hours. As of late this afternoon, the call center was empty and ceiling tiles were stacked against walls, but not yet reinstalled.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, which operate the 911 center, relocated the operation to its mobile command center–actually, a 37-foot Winnebago motor home converted into a mini sheriff’s substation 10 years ago: the command center has room for interrogations, communications and 911 dispatching. The mobile center was parked outside the 911 center, with a half dozen cables (phone lines, electric lines) running to it from the main Emergency Operations Center, itself located behind the Government Services Building on State Road 100.
The incident took place between 9 and 10 a.m. this morning. Spacecoast Fire & Safety, a Merrit Island-based company, is contracted by the county to maintain the building’s fire suppression system. It’s not an everyday sprinkler system. Water would damage the banks of computers and screens and other equipment in the 911 center. So instead of spewing water, two large sprinkler-like spouts release “inergen,” a non-toxic, blend of gases — nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide — that suddenly drop an enclosed area’s concentration of oxygen to suppress a fire without collateral damage.
The two spouts in the 911 center are connected to a bank of 12 high-pressure red tanks in another room, each containing 455 cubic feet of the gas, all of which are discharged at one time in an emergency.
There was no emergency Tuesday morning. But as the system was being tested, someone reportedly pressed the wrong button, triggering an actual release of the tanks instead of activating a test. Authorities are investigating whether a mistake was made or whether the discharge was accidental. When the gas released, as it is supposed to in an emergency, the force of the downward draft lifted the ceiling tiles off their rims, making the sound of a jet aircraft passing at low altitude. The tiles then crashed to the floor and the desks below, and the dispatchers working them.
Operations were briefly interrupted, but not to worry: the 911 system was down at most 120 seconds this morning, and no calls came in during that stretch, an official briefed on the incident said. Dispatchers rather quickly switched to portable phones and walked outside, where they were for a few minutes before actually going back inside and working at their consoles for 20 minutes until the mobile command center arrived. They then moved in there and carried on normal operations.
Aside from the blown-out ceiling tiles (most of the ceiling was gaping Tuesday afternoon) there appeared to be no damage to the 911 center other than dust.
Personnel inside the room was checked out after the incident. There were no complaints. The air was also tested, though one of inergen’s selling point is its safety, down to its environmental friendliness: the gas hurts neither people nor nature, including the ozone layer.
Sheriff’s and county officials met after the incident Tuesday morning and agreed to channel all information through the county’s public information office. Curiously, neither the county website nor the county’s “Flagler Emergency” website had posted any information on the incident by mid-evening Tuesday.
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