For five hours Tuesday, people in Stevens County learned how reliant they’ve become on phone and broadband lines.
Even the sheriff’s deputy director of emergency services couldn’t buy gas with a credit card.
“When you went around town, you couldn’t use your Visa at a restaurant or a gas station,” said Rick Anderson, who is based in Colville.
A severed fiber-optic line shut down phone, Internet, cell and credit card service in Stevens County, prompting the county to reroute its 911 emergency service to Spokane County’s center.
The 911 line serves Stevens County’s estimated 42,000 residents, Anderson said.
About 9:30 a.m., workers digging at the Valley, Wash., school sliced through a phone line owned by CenturyTel and partly leased by Qwest. CenturyTel’s 7,000 customers in Stevens County lost phone service, as did about 5,000 customers in Ferry County, company spokeswoman Jacquie Goodwill said. About 1,800 broadband Internet customers lost service.
Though local lines in many towns continued to function, the Stevens County 911 center transferred its calls to Spokane County because phone service was unreliable, Anderson said. Service throughout the county was hit-and-miss.
“It’s been a wild day up here,” he said. “The backup plan worked really smooth.”
Spokane County 911 operators picked up the slack. When they received a call, they would call Stevens County dispatchers on cell phones and transfer the call, said Lorlee Mizell, director of Spokane County 911. She said the contingency plan worked “very well.”
“I don’t know how many calls we got, but we were able to handle it with our existing staff and our existing system,” she said. “They have a lower call volume than we do.”
The center did not receive any major calls that might have posed logistical problems, Mizell said. But dispatchers were prepared to contact Stevens County authorities by radio.
There, firefighters at the county’s 13 fire departments – many of whom are volunteers – stood by at their fire stations in case anyone needed help, Anderson said. If people hadn’t been able to get through to a 911 operator, they could have walked to their nearest fire station.
Sheriff’s deputies stayed in contact through radios and pagers, but their in-car computer system was down, he said. Because the county had a plan in place for such an incident, dispatchers went by the book.
“We made the transition pretty well,” Anderson said. Except for when he wanted to gas up.
The Sunset Marts Conoco gas station in Colville had to turn away customers who were paying with credit or debit cards, but the check verification system was operating, cashier Marla Payne said. There, only local phones were working.
But up Highway 395 in Kettle Falls, Whitty’s Mini Mart’s bank card system worked but check verification did not, cashier Lois Louie said.
Services were inconsistent even across town. All systems at a Safeway in northern Colville worked, but almost everything was down at Super One Foods in the south end of town. The grocery store didn’t turn away customers but switched to a standby Hypercom credit card machine that uses a different network, manager Jeannie Barrie said.
About 2:20 p.m., CenturyTel workers finished repairing the fiber-optic line, but it took another hour and a half for service to return throughout the affected areas, Goodwill said.
Construction workers who sliced the line had checked with CenturyTel to locate safe areas to dig but started digging outside those areas, she said.
“Errors and accidents happen,” Goodwill said.
Stevens County dealt with a similar incident about a year and a half ago, when a fiber-optic line was cut near Deer Park, Anderson said.
In Spokane County, dispatchers and 911 operators have a backup center in Mead, though it has not recently been used on an emergency basis, Mizell said. They practice relocating about four times a year, and work from there when the Spokane center undergoes maintenance.
The Spokane County 911 center last assisted another county three or four years ago; incidents like Tuesday’s are infrequent, she said.
“It was just a good way to kind of test and see if we could provide that assistance,” Mizell said. “And I’m really pleased with the employees here.”