William Miller, MD
Communication Outage on Coast Was Useful Practice
On Tuesday, May 10th, at approximately 10:40 in the morning, a private construction crew inadvertently drilled into a major communication cable in Fort Bragg. As a result, communication services were lost throughout all of Fort Bragg and the surrounding communities from Gibney Lane north through West Port. There were also reports of spotty Internet and phone service in communities as far south as Elk and east to Laytonville. Approximately 16,000 people were affected according to AT&T as quoted by the Sherriff Department. Services that were lost included all cell phone carriers, Internet, cable TV and landline connections in and out of the area. Landlines within the affected area could call other local landlines, however, circuits were soon overloaded so only about 1 in 5 calls went through. This outage had implications for emergency services since the 911 system went down and people with only cell phones would not have had ability to call 911 either.
As a result of losing Internet connection, most local businesses, including gas stations and grocery stores, could not process credit card transactions and ATMs were not functioning. Drug stores closed as they could not check patient insurances to fill prescriptions.
“When the Internet and cell phones all went down simultaneously, we didn’t know how widespread this situation was,” said Davey Beak, Director of Emergency Ambulance Services on the Coast and the volunteer fire chief for Comptche. “For example, was this just affecting us on the Coast, or was this all of northern California or perhaps even the western seaboard? So, we started reaching out by radio to fire chiefs of the other surrounding fire districts and asking each of them to assess the extent of outage in their areas and report back. We quickly had a pretty good idea that this was just localized to Fort Bragg and some of the surrounding communities.”
The local hospital, Adventist Health Mendocino Coast, immediately activated its emergency command system and established collaboration with Fort Bragg police, fire, the school district and the city manager. “This is what we train for,” said Joyce Boghosian, Emergency Preparedness Manager for Adventist Health in Mendocino County. “Annually we review the list of what type of emergencies we are at highest risk of having and then we train for these types of events. For example, in the last year we have conducted drills that included simulated earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis and mass evacuations including of the hospital. In these drills, we include potential loss of electrical power and communications.” The hospital invites local authorities such as fire, police, and sheriff to participate in many of these drills. As a result, during this communication outage, there was smooth coordination that occurred with those agencies. “It was amazing how the hospital naturally just became the unified command post due to our previous drills. That was a huge win and shows the value of such preparedness,” Boghosian said.
“It really helped to have such good collaboration between police, fire and the hospital,” said John Naulty, Chief of the Fort Bragg Police Department. “The hospital setting up the incident command meetings helped take pressure off me so that I could go out in the field to make ongoing assessments of the situation. How we all came together was phenomenal.”
In response to the lack of 911, the local emergency providers worked together to come up with an alternative plan. This plan involved giving out the police department’s phone number over the local radio stations. In turn, ambulances would be dispatched by radio as usual. The 911 service was functional from the town of Mendocino south and the 911 dispatcher could reach the ambulance by radio which is the standard procedure. During the event, one local resident did suffer a broken leg and did receive ambulance transport and the care needed.
Services inside the hospital were not directly affected. However, coordinating transfers out of the emergency department (ED) to a higher level of care required the use of a satellite telephone. Using this satellite phone, the ED was able to communicate to a receiving hospital and did successfully transfer a patient during the outage.
This incident served as a great opportunity for local emergency agencies to test our systems in a real situation without having to also deal with large numbers of casualties. Much of what we learned during the five-day electrical outage in 2018 was successfully applied this time. “We use each actual incident like this as an opportunity to not only respond to the emergency, but to work on our processes and further improve them so that we are always getting better prepared for the next time,” Boghosian said.
It is important that everyone be prepared for disaster. The Internet has many useful guides. Given the potential to have to evacuate with short notice from a wildfire or tsunami, having a kit set up in advance that includes medications, identification, flashlights with batteries, an AM/FM radio and some extra cash, the so called “bug out bag”, is a good idea. Now might be a good time to consider developing a plan of cooperation with neighbors on how to respond as a group to help each other out. Especially important for those of us living down one of the many single lane roads that wind deep into overgrown forest is to identify multiple different evacuation routes in case of wildfire and communicate those to your neighbors. There is a federal program called Neighborhood Emergency Response Training (NERT) that can be found online which can guide the steps to create a disaster response plan within your neighborhood.
In a widespread disaster, emergency services could be limited. The more steps that you can take in advance to be prepared so that you don’t have to call upon those services the more those limited emergency services will then be available to help people who may be injured or needing rescue.