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Local first responders describe effects of national cellular outages

Cell phone
S Junker

Tens of thousands of people struggled with cellular outages today. And for some AT&T customers, the outage made it impossible to make or receive calls, including to 9-1-1.

The outages began around 4 a.m. and peaked at around 74,000 reported incidents, according to the digital tracking site, Downdetector.

On Cape Cod, Hyannis Fire Chief Peter Burke said he heard a few anecdotal reports about locals who saw “SOS” messages displayed on the status bar of their phones and couldn’t reach emergency responders.

But, he said, “it appears the Cape was not necessarily as hard hit as other areas. We heard some of the more urban areas were more affected by the outage.”

Still, first responders had to monitor their own devices throughout the day.

“We do use things like mobile data terminals that help us understand the type of emergency we’re going to and where it’s physically located. And law enforcement —  they use mobile data terminals to run drivers licenses and registrations on vehicles, and things of that nature. So a lot of connectivity is how we do our jobs effectively,” he said. 

He added, “But we track things like, ‘Are there critical systems that do rely on a cell phone connection, and if so, what do we have in place for a redundancy standpoint to make sure that we can continue to function?’”  

Ultimately, Burke said, the Hyannis Fire Department had trouble with just two of 50 connected devices.

Verizon and T-Mobile customers reported some network outages, too, but they appeared far less widespread. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the outages.

Overall, Burke said, in a world where we increasingly rely on cell connection, this outage event should prompt questions.

“Do you have cell phones in more than one carrier?" he said. "Do you try to maintain a landline in event of emergency? Do you try to have good relationship with your neighbors, so if something happens to you, you can knock on your neighbor's door and ask for help?”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.