OREGON - Phone Service Restored After Wiring Meldown

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Phone Service Restored

By David Preszler

June 27, 2000

An electrical wiring meltdown at US Wests downtown Medford switching center left the citys telephone network teetering on the brink of failure Monday.

Customers lost telephone, cellular and data services around the city, though US West officials said the entire system never went down. Service largely had been restored by evening, with the exception of some areas on the citys fringes. Service was expected to be functioning normally by today.

Cables connecting a power transformer to the phone companys system melted early Monday morning, robbing the system of power. The cable meltdown also damaged wires connecting a backup generator to the system.

That left only backup batteries to run the complex switching equipment that handles all 15 Medford prefixes as well as emergency calls for most of Jackson County.

City police and fire officials used radio and television broadcasts to urge people to stay off the phones except for emergency calls. Any use, they warned, would drain the system faster.

As the batteries faded, a citywide outage loomed.

"We were down to the wire," said US Wests Dave Hoxie, who manages the companys engineering operations throughout the 541 area code.

But crews were able to reconnect the backup generator just after 4 p.m. before the batteries died. The batteries were to be recharged overnight, restoring service to the fringe areas. Pacific Power workers also began installing a temporary transformer to provide a more permanent power source; crews were expected to work through the night to finish it. That transformer will provide power over the next few weeks as the original system is repaired.

With the battery power fading in the afternoon, utility workers shifted the load on the phone network in order to keep basic services such as 911 running. That created hit-and-miss service around the city.

The disruptions ranged from simple phone service to advanced technologies such as cellular phones, Internet hook-ups, ATMs and credit card processing equipment. The outages disrupted businesses, inconvenienced residents and had public safety officials employing contingency plans.

The cause of the problem was unknown Monday night, though Pacific Power officials said neither the transformer nor the primary line into it were damaged. City fire officials were still investigating what caused the wires to overheat, but they dont suspect anything beyond some sort of electrical short.

The fact that the incident damaged both US Wests primary power source and its immediate backup raises questions about the effectiveness of the companys redundancy systems.

Hoxie said its too soon to know exactly what happened but that the company will certainly be reviewing the incident.

"There will be reports and this will be studied," he said.

Fire crews were called just before 7:15 a.m. after black smoke began pouring out the basement of US Wests facility at the corner of Jackson Street and Central Avenue.

"We didnt find any live fire," said Medford Fire Department Battalion Chief Dan Peterson. "What we found was insulation and wire that was smoking. We found mostly wires that had overheated."

Hazardous materials crews also were called because of the possibility that toxic chemicals often used in telecommunications were inside the building, though no such chemicals are used at the downtown facility.

The mishap left public safety officials scrambling to ensure that emergency services remained available.

City police and fire officials also set up locations around Medford for residents to report emergencies if they couldnt get through by phone.

Emergency calls to the countys 911 center were rerouted to take strain off the Medford phone network. Outside of Ashland, which has its own emergency dispatch center, all of Jackson Countys emergency calls normally come through Medford. Those calls were rerouted to local fire departments.

In addition to Jackson County, the system strain also affected 911 service in Josephine and Klamath counties. The so-called "advanced" 911 service for all three counties  which displays the callers number and address  is dependent on the Medford facility. Because of the strain, all 911 calls were restricted to "basic" service  only the voice connection.

The outages and spotty service also disrupted commerce throughout the valley.

Eric Freitas, receiving manager for Baxter All Value Office Products in downtown Medford, said the store was unable to place orders for its customers. Local calls met with a dial tone, while long-distance calls to suppliers in Portland and Los Angeles brought fast busy signals.

"We got a few calls in and out, but that was rare," Freitas said. "We couldnt do anything. Our business is basically run off phone lines."

The areas largest employer, Bear Creek Corp., rerouted its customer telephone traffic away from its Medford call center to a similar call center in Ohio, allowing it to continue serving customers.

InternetCDS, the areas largest locally run Internet service provider, lost its phone service first and then had its Internet connections disrupted, as did other ISPs.

At the north Medford Fred Meyer, a store backup system allowed credit card transactions to be handled but phones and ATMs were out. Fred Sowers, the stores manager, said the outage was particularly hard on the pharmacy, which couldnt communicate with doctors offices. Money wires and food stamp processing were also hampered.

"It was like five years ago where you do everything manually," he said. http://www.mailtribune.com/news/062700n1.htm

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 27, 2000

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