Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Wildfires raging south of Humboldt County triggered a local emergency as the AT&T company’s puzzling failure to use a back-up fiber optic line once again resulted in widespread telecommunications outages.
Most Internet, phone and other telecommunications services were restored on Oct. 11 after a two-day outage related to line damage. During the blackout, county and city governments, businesses, medical providers and other services were without internet and telephone access.
It’s a situation that has occurred semi-regularly, as recently as last summer, and one that prompted the county’s Board of Supervisors to declare a local emergency at its Oct. 10 meeting.
County Sheriff Billy Honsal said the wildfires caused a fiber optic line break in Mendocino County, triggering “widespread communication difficulties and struggles with system failures.”
He added that “part of the county’s struggle right now is to keep up with all of our services.”
The county’s telecommunication system is serviced by AT&T and Honsal said the Sheriff’s Office was unable to perform essential functions such as checking arrestees for warrants and accessing driver’s license information.
County Health and Human Services Director Connie Beck reported that her department’s child welfare, in-home supportive services and eligibility and benefits systems were all down. The department has 1,000 employees and “this has impacted everyone’s ability to do their jobs,” said Beck.
Honsal said his office’s 911 phone emergency system was still working but Arcata’s police department was temporarily without it. All of his office’s non-emergency phone numbers were offline, he continued.
Supervisor Rex Bohn discouraged complaining about the service loss. He viewed the situation in the context of the wildfire tragedies experienced south of Humboldt.
“Our inconvenience pales compared to the inconvenience they’re suffering down south,” he said. “So every time you want to sit there and bitch about what we don’t have up here, think about what they don’t have down there,” he said.
Honsal pointed out that fiber optic redundancy or back-up is available but AT&T hasn’t linked to it. He said state lawmakers have been pressuring AT&T to link to the back-up line.
But Bohn supported the company, saying access to the damaged lines was difficult and “they’re just as frustrated as we are.” He re-emphasized the service break’s larger context.
“I can’t implore everybody enough, to just take a breath,” he said, adding that some residents of the wildfire-affected counties have “lost everything.”
Supervisor Estelle Fennell was less willing to cut AT&T slack.
“I have to point out that the reason that we’re in this position is because we don’t have that redundancy and we need to hammer that home,” she said. “We’ve talked about it before – I remember having this discussion a year or two ago and having the discussion of what would work in an emergency – and it hasn’t worked.”
On Bohn’s comparison to the direct wildfire impacts, Fennell said, “Just think about the fact that our neighbors to the south, Sonoma and Mendocino, need our help and we can’t even provide it if we don’t have that connectivity.”
Connie Stewart of the California Center for Rural Policy has been advocating for improved telecommunications services in the region and she said AT&T has been promising to provide back-up but hasn’t made good on it or provided a date when it will.
“We really do need a discussion on this,” she said, adding that state lawmakers haven’t done enough to get AT&T to provide back-up capability.
Suddenlink is also a countywide telecommunications provider and is connected to the back-up line. Its services were uninterrupted during the wildfires.