The State Law Enforcement Division may have to fork out as much as $250,000 to patch up and strengthen its electrical systems in the wake of summertime breakdowns that knocked down key databases for weeks.
Originally blamed on lightning strikes, the agency’s electrical problems began in late July and involved a piece of equipment called a “rectifier” that acts as a bridge between SCE&G and SLED’s circuits.
“It had nothing to do with a lightning strike,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said Wednesday, adding also that “any rumor that it had to do with hacking is totally false.”
Instead, the outage involved a chain of events that exposed serious shortcomings in the agency’s backup electrical systems and triggered an expensive retrofit that’s still underway.
SLED’s Columbia headquarters controls an array of important databases, including criminal records and videos of people stopped for driving under the influence. Keel said it’s vital to keep these databases running. “If an officer stops a vehicle and runs a tag, he needs to know if a person is wanted for being armed and dangerous.”
Keel said that after the $2,275 rectifier blew in late July, maintenance crews scrounged up a replacement from another system. But after they hooked it up, that one also blew. Concerned that SCE&G’s electricity supply was vulnerable because of the summer’s many thunderstorms, crews then switched the computer systems’ power supply directly to a generator.
“Lo and behold, the generator shut down, and we had a hard (computer) crash, exactly what we had been trying to avoid.” Crews fixed the generator, and it crashed again. Because of all these problems, databases containing large amounts of videos involving DUIs were unavailable for more than two weeks.
Tim Kulp, a Charleston attorney, grew suspicious about SLED’s statements about lightning being the cause. Pulling data from a database of lightning strikes, he learned that no strikes were within three miles of SLED’s headquarters when the outage was reported to have taken place.
Keel said that because so many thunderstorms were in the area at the time, agency officials wrongly assumed that lightning had been the cause. He still does not know what caused the rectifiers to blow.
He added that the agency already has spent $44,000 to repair and strengthen its backup systems. “It’s expensive, and it may cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars. But the bottom line is that it’s necessary.”