Citizens share concerns after regional communications outage

Text: T T
Jane Howard

The county survived a communications breakdown with the outside world Tuesday, January 26, 2010, but proponents of countywide fiber optic infrastructure believe the event is an example of the need for a better system. For about 12 hours that day, a break in Qwest’s fiber optic line to Cook County left residents, businesses, government offices, and emergency systems without long-distance phone service, Internet access, or cell phone coverage. Fortunately, nothing really terrible happened, but it could have.

The outage was believed to have been caused by a ruptured steam line that melted a fiber optic line in Duluth, but at the February 9 county board meeting, Commissioner Bob Fenwick said neither Qwest nor the company that runs steam lines through Duluth were taking any blame.

” According to a report by Emergency Management Director Jim Wiinanen, the outage covered a portion of St. Louis County and all of Lake and Cook counties, affecting a population of 16,427 over 3,543 square miles. Wiinanen stated in his report that businesses seemed to have been affected more than government offices, but public safety was jeopardized.

A report by Sheriff Mark Falk stated that the outage “had significant impact on public safety” – particularly on the 911 system, which did not work. Since phone calls could be made within each of the county’s four exchanges – 475, 388, 387, and 663 – volunteer firefighters were stationed at the fire halls and communicated with the Law Enforcement Center via radio. WTIP Radio broadcast fire hall phone numbers so people knew where to call in case of emergency.

Law enforcement, stationed across the county, could not access information on callers or maps to their locations. According to Sheriff Falk, officer safety was compromised because they could not check databases for stolen vehicles or arrest warrants when they stopped drivers.

“Our ability to respond and provide timely response was severely impacted,” Falk wrote, “and could have compromised our ability to provide for the public safety needs of our community, adding much time to our response. …Theimpact that this had on public safety could have been significant. If there would have been a critical incident it could have been catastrophic, compromising the safety of the public, first responders, and law enforcement.”

The U.S. Border Patrol responded to questions from Wiinanen by writing that they communicated within the county by radio. “Our radio communications are fed back to Grand Forks via phone line from our main repeater,” they wrote, “so we were unable to communicate with both our dispatcher and other agents in the state. We attempted to use a relay through Lake County to pass on information, but I am not sure our message made it through. The biggest deficiency we noticed was with the satellite phone communications. We were unable to establish a signal with our satellite phone. I believe this is an issue with the phone, the service or a combination of both.”

The outage disabled National Weather Service broadcasts, since they go through phone lines. Ham radio operators were stationed at North Shore Hospital so they could call outside the county for help as needed, but 58 people with significant medical conditions could not have used their “First Call” emergency buttons if needed. Approximately 70 people in Cook County with emergency medical monitoring devices could not be monitored. Students working online through Cook County Higher Ed missed classes and homework deadlines.

Wiinanen polled entities throughout the community on the effect of the outage. One response from

Grand Marais hotel said,

Due to the communication issue on Tuesday, we consequently had no reservations taken during the day. As a result, last night (Wednesday) we had zero rooms at Aspen Lodge, one at Shoreline, none at Cobblestone Cove, two at Super 8. Thatis very unusual for January. We are by no means full during these days, but it is unusual to be as empty as we were.”

A Devil Track Resort representative wrote, “We rely on the snowmobile demographic. They often wait until the last minute to make reservations depending on where there is fresh snow. After struggling through a winter with little snow, we get a dumping Sunday and Monday…then we couldn’t send out the snow report to the 4,000 people who have signed up to know when we get snow! Those who had heard we had snow couldn’t call or get a hold of us. Many made reservations elsewhere. Losing phone service for an entire day is detrimental for little places like us.”

Someone from Rockwood Lodge wrote, “The rule of thumb is, if you don’t answer, someone else will, so a call missed is a sale lost.”

City Hall responded by saying there was a “significant loss of productivity for the day. …There was a noticeable lack of calls as well, but most of the business we do with the community was unaffected.”

A Cook County government representative wrote, “If there were any deadlines during this outage the consequences could have been significant. Because the event was relatively short-term, county staff was tasked with other duties not requiring access to telecommunications.”

Wiinanen listed three goals he would like to see the county achieve in case of similar outages in the future. He would like to ensure a reliable means for the public to request emergency assistance, for the hospital to communicate to centers that provide higher levels of care, and for public safety entities to adequately provide information to the public.

Commissioner Bob Fenwick will be advocating with telecommunications companies and legislators for a more reliable system with a backup. He called this “an opportunity to get everybody to the table to try to solve the problem.” He believes Cook County may be able to influence companies like Qwest to put more resources into the county, especially if the county is moving toward establishing its own fiber optic network.

“I think everybody did the best they could with what we had,” Sheriff Falk told the county board.

One respondent to Wiinanen’s poll wrote, “Tuesday really pointed out how isolated we are when all but a couple of the communications options blow out. Fifty years ago, people probably wouldn’t have noticed, or cared, that the phone lines were down. It was just part of living here. However, with the large number of ways people are connected these days, losing those systems gives people a very heavy hit.”

2010-02-13 / Front Page

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