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Phone line sabotage shows 911 vulnerable

COMMUNICATION: County's emergency dispatch has no backup phone service in place.

Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald

When someone severed fiber-optic phone lines in Snohomish County twice last week, it did more than disrupt telecommunications in Whatcom County.

The phone blackouts underscored the vulnerability of Whatcom County's 911 dispatch system, because there's no backup phone service in place, said Randy Carroll, Bellingham police chief.

Cell phone service was disrupted Sept. 19, and much of the county's toll, 911 and cell service was out for up to seven hours last Thursday evening. That Thursday, local officials managed to reroute one phone line to the 911 emergency dispatch center.

"We basically had one 911 line for 170,000 people," Carroll said.

Bellingham police and FBI agents are investigating.

The phone lines were in a locked, unstaffed building -- Carroll described it as a "bunker." Other cables in the building near Stanwood serviced other counties, but only lines servicing Whatcom County were cut, and they were cut in the same place two days running.

"The person must have had some technical knowledge of the way the phone lines are set up to Whatcom County," Carroll said.

The outage last Thursday affected thousands of people in a patchwork pattern. Qwest provides service in Bellingham, while Verizon provides local service in other parts of Whatcom County.

During the outage, for example, Qwest-to-Qwest local calls were getting through, while people with some local Verizon exchanges, primarily in Lynden and Mount Vernon, could not make local calls, and local customers may not have been able to make certain calls to Bellingham or to long-distance numbers. Customers of AT&T Broadband did not lose service.

Several fiber-optic lines feed into Whatcom County, put in place by various communication companies. One way people and businesses can acquire backup phone service is simply by paying for service from more than one company, said John Gargett, president of Fairhaven International, a telecommunications consulting firm in Bellingham.

Public agencies similarly can obtain backup service, with residents typically covering the cost through taxes or fees. Another option would be to erect a satellite dish, microwave tower or other secondary mechanism to transmit phone service.

"It's a question of cost," Gargett said.

Neil Clement, deputy director of Whatcom County's Emergency Management Division, said the problems last week might put phone companies on notice that the situation needs to be dealt with.

"This may have a silver cloud benefit," he said.

Steps taken

When the phones went out, local officials took several steps to provide communication between residents and police and fire agencies.

Fire stations and fire district halls were told to be staffed if they weren't already.

Ham radio operators were notified, so they could provide roving communication links if needed during a prolonged outage.

Police and fire departments and other law enforcement agencies were able to communicate by radio.

A working phone line was rerouted to 911.

In addition, officials triggered the emergency broadcast system, which issues emergency information via television and radio stations.

Local officials were hesitant to do that, fearing that people still traumatized by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might overreact to notice of a communications situation that was bothersome but hardly cataclysmic.

"America was not under attack, and we didn't want to make it seem that it was," Clement said. "The circumstances didn't warrant a panic."

So word of the phone problem -- and how residents should cope with it -- was sent as an administrative notice, which doesn't automatically override TV and radio programming, rather than as an emergency alert, which does, Clement said.

Workers at KVOS-TV noticed and posted the alert on the air, but local radio crews didn't, he said.

When county officials realized local radio stations weren't transmitting the message, a police officer drove to Cascade Radio Group headquarters on Yew Street Road, and Clement was taken there to deliver the message, Carroll said.

The message included advice that residents not call 911 for details or to report their phone problems. More than 100 people called, Carroll said.

Reach Dean Kahn, editor, at or 715-2264.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 02, 2001

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