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Turkey into electrical wires knocks out power to Sonoma County's 911 system

Published: Monday, April 9, 2012 at 9:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 7:59 a.m.

A wild turkey that flew into power lines knocked out Sonoma County's high-tech emergency 911 dispatch system Sunday night and crippled operations at the courthouse and county jail Monday.

The power blackout was compounded when the county's massive and expensive emergency backup power system failed.

On Monday, with computers out, traffic court was greatly curtailed, court calendars and proceedings had to be recorded by hand and jail inmates missed morning court appearances.

“And all because of a turkey,” said Jose Guillen, court executive officer.

The 7:59 p.m. Sunday blackout affected almost 2,000 homes and businesses, including the county's computer aided dispatch system used by nearly all public safety departments in the county.

Without it, police and fire dispatchers for an hour Sunday were forced to take calls with paper and pencil.

No significant delays or problems in responding to calls were reported during the blackout, officials said.

The turkey's timing helped: Calls for service from 8 to 9 p.m. on Sundays typically are low. Only about a dozen calls came in to REDCOM, the county's regional fire and medical emergency dispatch center, during Sunday's blackout.

With the blackout, the dispatchers' computers and every computer connected to the county system went black, officials said. At that point, the county's uninterrupted power supply, or UPS, should have kicked in.

“The UPS failed,” said Chris Hentz, who supervises tech support for the county's computer dispatch system. “It's just that simple.”

Computer crews Monday were checking why the 10-year-old backup system failed. Officials said such a failure never occurred before.

“A turkey took out our power, which really just doesn't sound good,” Hentz said.

“If a turkey can take down the entire ... system, we need to find a different work-around,” said Mark Basque, a battalion chief with the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

The blackout started near Cleveland Avenue and Carrillo Street, when a resident shooed the bird from a backyard.

“It flew straight up into power lines,” Basque said.

The turkey was killed and dropped onto a new Lexus parked below, smashing its windshield, he said.

Power was cut in the neighborhood and north along the Highway 101 corridor to the county administration complex, affecting 1,919 customers from 7:59 to 8:42 p.m. Sunday.

Without electricity, dispatchers lost access to computerized maps that help them quickly pinpoint locations for firefighters, police and ambulance crews.

Instead, everyone had to pull out paper map books and communicate using radios and phones.

For longtime dispatchers, who started their careers writing on dispatch call cards, it was back to basics. Many veterans keep paper and pencils at their desk, just in case.

“It hinders us, it doesn't stop us,” said John Lantz, assistant chief of the Central Fire agency, which represents Rincon Valley and Windsor fire crews. “We have to go back to the way we did it 10 years ago.”

Once PG&E crews repaired the power lines, the county's dispatch center was back online by about 9 p.m.

The Sebastopol, Healdsburg and Cloverdale police departments and Cloverdale Fire Department were unaffected because they don't use the county's dispatch system.

At the courthouse Monday, Guillen described a day filled with huge delays, scrambling employees and hours of overtime to get court back on track for today.

Some of the courthouse computer system was back online by about 10 a.m., and all power was restored by 2 p.m.

“At traffic court, we went manual,” Guillen said.

The result was that instead of about 150 cases being handled, only about 10 were. On Tuesday, traffic court is expected to be able to handle 75 to 90 cases, still well below a typical day.

“Hopefully not everyone will come back at once,” Guillen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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