Fiber optics make the valley’s 911 system more versatile — and more vulnerable
By Marcy Stamper
A simple phone call can travel thousands of miles before the phone rings in your friend’s house just a few towns over. The process seems so ordinary that most of us take it for granted — that is, until there’s no dial tone or, worse, you repeatedly dial 911 and can’t get through.
Local calls are pretty straightforward, generally traveling between Twisp and Winthrop and Mazama via copper wires. But when you call 911 or long-distance, your call follows an intricate route through Florida or Colorado before the phone rings — in Pateros, New York or the dispatch center in Okanogan — just fractions of a second later.
Methow Valley residents have become worryingly familiar with spotty communications over the past few months. Many of the wires that carry phone calls were incinerated in the Carlton Complex Fire, and phone service has been interrupted at least twice since, when repair crews cut a fiber-optic line in August and again at the end of September.
The county’s 911 system was not damaged in the fire — the buried and aerial wires used by the phone company and Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) were the ones that burned — but the result was the same. Particularly during the most urgent days of the fire, many people could not get through to 911.
“There is redundancy with the 911 systems; however, the fire damaged so much of that infrastructure that to get the system rerouted took longer than usual,” said Kerry Zimmer, marketing and public relations manager for CenturyLink, by email. “When the phone lines were burned, the few that remained became overloaded and that is when you would hear the fast busy [signal].”
Making local calls — if you had an old-fashioned landline that didn’t require electricity — was generally more successful. But all long-distance phone calls are routed through those switching centers in either Colorado or Florida, depending on call volume and time of day, according to Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications for Okanogan County.
The fiber-optic network is particularly important for long-distance calls and 911 calls, said Worden. After the 911 system verifies that there are no technical failures that would interfere with transmission, the call is sent to the appropriate 911 dispatch center in less than a second, he said.
Fiber: better, but vulnerable
In the old days, phone systems were tied together in actual bundles. “You could put your hand around them. You knew where the circuits were and could plan around them,” said Hank Cramer, who was the Washington’s 911 systems manager in the 1990s and is now the executive director of Methow Valley Long Term Recovery, which is handling local fire recovery and preparedness.
Modern technology enhances and complicates the process. Fiber lines can carry so much information that most calls are carried out of the valley by just a few lines. “In the old days, one guy with a backhoe would take down 25 to 100 conversations. Now, one guy could take out the whole valley. Fiber-optics have actually made us more vulnerable,” said Cramer.
While buried lines seem more protected, this summer’s wildfire also scorched CenturyLink’s underground cable, said Zimmer. Technicians were able to splice together some intact wires to restore service, but reduced capacity meant that many calls failed.
“The redundancies for the system are in place, but you can’t foresee everything. It could be something as crazy as a gopher chew,” said Zimmer.
Cell phone systems are theoretically more resilient — if fiber-optic cables burn, a cell call could still get through — but at some point cellular calls tie into the fiber-optic network and reenter the landline system, said Cramer. In addition, some cell towers burned in the fires, and some didn’t have back-up generators.
The central offices that handle landline calls also require power. During the power outage this summer, CenturyLink had people on call with fuel to keep the generators running, said Zimmer.
During the fire, CenturyLink, other local phone companies, and utilities including the PUD all worked together, sharing lines and equipment to restore service. The PUD is still using two strands in a CenturyLink fiber-optic cable from Pateros to Twisp, at no charge, since it will be many weeks until crews finish repairs to the PUD’s infrastructure, according to John MacDonald, network manager for the PUD.
Where were the failures?
Emergency managers still don’t know exactly what failed when calls didn’t get through to the 911 dispatch center during the fire.
Methow Valley Long Term Recovery plans to request call records from both landline and cell phone companies, as well as the state and federal agencies that regulate them, that will show how many 911 calls were attempted but not completed, said Cramer.
Even more problematic during the fire was the volume of calls to the dispatch center, with between 100 and 500 coming in at once, said Worden. “The system was severely constricted. It was working, but could only take so much,” he said.
As currently configured, the county’s dispatch center, which occupies part of the jail building, can only have four dispatchers at a time. “We could have kept eight to 10 busy” during the fire, said Worden. With more space and more telephones, the existing phone network could accommodate that call volume, he said.
The county’s dispatch center normally handles about 7,000 calls per month (some 2,000 of which are 911 calls), but in July, operators answered twice that number. At the height of the Carlton Complex Fire, they dealt with almost 1,200 calls a day, four times the normal load, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
The limitation on the number of available frequencies for emergency communications also creates problems, said Worden. In most parts of the county, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services share the same frequency, meaning that at busy times, dispatch and responders sometimes have to wait for a free frequency.
The Methow Valley actually has better coverage than most parts of the county, with three separate frequencies handled by the tower on McClure Mountain, said Worden. “Brewster has only one frequency for all three and it gets horribly crowded,” he said.
Getting a new frequency is more difficult than it used to be, requiring an application to the Federal Communications Commission for a frequency that won’t conflict with others in this area or in Canada, which can take two years, said Worden.
Emergency-service providers actually use two different types of frequencies. A “repeated” frequency allows an individual on the ground to talk to others via a portable radio and a signal that bounces off the McClure transmitter. “Nonrepeated” frequencies go from one portable radio directly to another radio, but these signals only travel a few miles and are limited to one person at a time, said Worden.
History of 911
Emergency dispatch in the Methow Valley initially relied on the few businesses that had 24-hour coverage — the Wagner lumber mill and a reservations system for hotels.
Because the powerhouse for the mill ran 24 hours a day, in the 1980s the local fire district was dispatched out of the mill, according to Don Waller, fire chief for Okanogan County Fire District 6. After the mill shut down in the mid-1980s, fire dispatch was transferred to the sheriff’s office and added a fire frequency on McClure, he said.
Ambulances were actually dispatched by what was then called Methow Valley Answering Service, which also handled hotel reservations, said Cindy Button, director of services for Aero Methow Rescue Service. After the Thirtymile Fire, Aero Methow got a separate frequency for emergency medical services.
The U.S. 911 emergency system started in 1968, but 911 service didn’t come to the Methow until 1995.
Today 911 service is quite automated, particularly for calls from landlines. As soon as a call comes in, software tells dispatchers the address. The 911 calls made from cell phones are routed to the dispatch center closest to the cell tower that handled the call, which makes these calls more complex, since the caller could be in transit, said Cramer.
The county had already been studying possible upgrades to its emergency communications and dispatch services before the fire, said Worden. Worden expects the study to be complete by the end of this month.
Like most rural areas, Okanogan County receives money from the state to support its 911 services, since it costs more to provide adequate 911 service than county tax revenue supports, said Worden. Urban areas typical get more money from taxes than they need for 911.
Aero Methow is upgrading communications in its office, adding three lines of redundancy, using phone, Internet and satellite, which should be installed by the end of the year, said Button.
“I’m not trying to panic and say 911 doesn’t work — 911 is generally pretty good. But any time we have a loss of 911, we want to see where the vulnerability is and how to make it better,” said Cramer.