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Emergency center does double duty

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By Greg Summers

Most Election Days, the three phones in the Lancaster County Voter Registration Office ring non-stop.

Those phones did ring on Tuesday, Nov. 6, but the volume of calls election workers were fielding in the county administration building wasn’t as bad as usual.

But that didn’t mean nobody was answering them. Those phones were still ringing, just not in that office.

The calls were rerouted to a temporary call center set up in the Lancaster County Emergency Management Office on White Street.

Ten “operators” sat in front of computer terminals manning the phone lines, while thumbing through notebooks to answer questions ranging from precinct directions to specific voter information.

And no, the call switch was no accident. It was intentionally done to test the county’s new emergency operations center, which recently went online.

Had this been an actual emergency, the operations center would have been staffed with representatives from each county agency and utility companies, along with emergency services and Red Cross to monitor the situation, said Morris Russell, director of the county’s emergency management office.

“I’ve been watching how Horry County does something similar to test their EOC,” Russell said. “We thought this would be a great way to make sure everything here works like it’s supposed to.”

Russell said a Red Cross CPR class was also scheduled at the office to make sure it would be business as usual.

The emergency operations computers were temporarily tied to the county’s voter registration data base as a resource. Russell said the system was secure.

“About 7:30 (p.m.), depending on what’s happening at the polls, it will revert back to old school,” Russell said Tuesday.

Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said departments that could spare an employee for the day provided the call center staff, which included Cathy McDaniel, who normally works in vehicle maintenance.

“It’s a big change,” she said. However, before McDaniel could elaborate, she answered another call.

“Voter registration call center,” McDaniel said, before giving a voter information and specific directions to the Lancaster East precinct at Eastside Academy. She said only one call had come in that morning she couldn’t answer.

“A lady called in who’s been displaced from New York and relocated to Lancaster County,” McDaniel said. “She wanted to know where she could go to vote. She said the governor (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo) said they could vote anywhere. To be honest, we didn’t know what to tell her, except to get in touch with the governor’s office there and she didn’t know how to do that.”    

The operators not only answered questions, but filled out logs that will be used as a future resource. The call center received 902 calls and were able to answer 891 of them. In some instances, the caller hung up before one of the operators could respond. 

“I haven’t gotten any strange calls yet, but I’m sure they’re coming,” said Carolyn Harris, who works in communications for the sheriff’s office.

Russell said using the call center would help both the emergency management and voter registration office in the future.

Emergency management, he said, gets to see how the emergency operations phone system works and evaluate it. The call logs will be tallied and given to the voter registration office as feedback on voters’ questions.  

“We’re sure giving it one heck of a test. This is definitely a good way to try it out,” said Tony Gainer, the county’s fire service planner.

Gainer was sitting in for volunteer Irene Plyler, who took a short break and grabbed a cookie and Diet Mountain Dew.

“Haven’t had any breakfast,” said Plyer, who had been at the operations center since 7 a.m. “It’s been pretty busy.”

Before getting even one sip of soda, the phone rang twice and Plyler touched the button on the Bluetooth earpiece she was wearing.

“Voter registration call center,” she said. “How may I help you?”