(This story has been corrected from the printed version, which was in error in identifying the contractor as working for Elevate Fiber. The contractor was actually working for Region 10 on its broadband Internet project. The DCI regrets the error.)
A failure to properly locate and mark a utility line where drilling was planned resulted in a 12-hour outage of phone and internet services for TDS and other customers throughout much of Delta County and the North Fork area last Wednesday. The outage, which lasted from approximately 9:10 a.m. to 10 p.m., left many without vital means of communication.
Throughout the day businesses were unable to process credit and debit card payments, prescriptions went unfilled, and some area banks were forced to close. The Paonia Post Office point of sale system was slow but working, allowing customers to send packages and certified mail, although clerks were unable to verify addresses and estimate delivery time.
Not having phone or internet service makes it tough to conduct business, said Crawford town clerk Cally Gallegos. While cell service in Crawford is already spotty at best, having no service was cause for concern in the event an emergency arises, said Gallegos.
According to a TDS press release, landline customers could call within their prefixes but had no long-distance services. TDS was able to reroute 9-1-1 traffic and restore 9-1-1 services within an hour and 15 minutes. However, the remaining services were not restored until after 10 p.m. "Wireless carriers often use landline networks as part of their base infrastructure, which is why some wireless cell carriers were also impacted."
The release states that a third-party contractor, "not hired by TDS, was doing directional boring on Hwy 92 east of Delta," and pulled up fiber optic lines in two locations about 200 feet apart. TDS workers had excavated the damaged line, replaced the fiber optics, and spliced the lines back together. Unlike restoring a copper landline, "When a fiber line is damaged it breaks glass at the site and also sends shatters down the line, making the length of the excavation longer than just a single site."
Chris Kennedy, broadband project director for Region 10 in Montrose, said the TDS line was not marked by a locator. A drilling contractor was working on middle-mile infrastructure for Region 10, when it pulled the line up. The contractor called for a locate at least 72 hours in advance of drilling and drilled based on those locates, said Kennedy. "From their perspective, everything was marked."
TDS national public relations manager DeAnne Boegli said the company is actively investigating why the fiber lines were not marked by its contracted locate company. TDS policy does not allow the company to identify its contractors, said Boegli. The company says it will identify the parties responsible for the damages.
This is at least the third time in the last couple of years this has happened, said Crawford area resident Gary Hubbell, who wants accountability from the responsible party. Hubbell, a real estate broker with United Country Colorado Brokers in Hotchkiss, said he's working on a real estate auction and is relying on open communication lines. "I need to have my phone ring," he said. When clients call and get only a beep-beep, that can affect a sale and reflects poorly on his business.
More importantly, said Hubbell, the consequences ripple throughout the entire community, from parents coordinating after-school pick-ups with their children to the elderly whose lives may depend on a phone call or emergency alert signal. They also affect local business struggling to stay afloat in a downward spiraling economy. "A lot of people do business online," said Hubbell.
As more people consider Delta County in their relocation plans, said Hubbell, these outages, on top of already weak cell phone and internet services, are a big consideration for prospective property buyers and can result in lost contracts and businesses and families choosing to locate to towns with more dependable services.
Delta County emergency management director Jeff Wright said his first concern is public safety. In response to other recent outages, the county has worked with various law enforcement and EMS organizations to put back-up communication measures in place. When outages affect communications, said Wright, the county immediately informs emergency service providers, law enforcement and fire departments and puts out notices to the local media and on social media.
Emergency 911 calls originating in the North Fork area, including Somerset, are automatically routed to the Hotchkiss Fire District station. The county sends dispatchers to designated locations in each of the communities affected to cover incoming emergency calls until communications are restored, and is in radio communication with each of the locations.
Delta County also participates in CodeRed, an Emergency Notification System that automatically notifies citizens and business owners during an emergencies including excavation notices, fire emergencies and law enforcement activities. In situations like this, said Wright, CodeRED is not activated.
(Cell phone users can join CodeRED at no cost at www.deltacounty.com. Those obtaining a new landline are urged to check that their number is linked to the service. The link to CodeRed is on the Delta County website homepage or at http://www.deltacounty.com/80/Emergency-Alerts)
Hotchkiss Marshal Dan Miller said he didn't know of any reported emergencies during last week's outage. When his department loses cell service, phones are set to automatically roam to another carrier, if another one is working, which helps keep communication lines open. He recommends that cell phone users check to see if their phones have that capacity in the event of an emergency.
While local EMS and law enforcement have a plan in place, citizens aren't always prepared for emergencies, said Wright. He recommends planning ahead and anticipating emergency situations lasting at least three days. They should have on hand at least a three-day supply food and water and a kit containing medications and other necessities. Households should also consider having cash on hand in the event of emergencies, including long-term power and communication outages.
When incidents like last week's outage occur, all North Fork residents with landlines can reach emergency services by calling 872-3311 (856-3456 in Cedaredge, 835-4960 in Orchard City).
Colorado residents and businesses planning to dig can request a free utility location service by dialing 8-1-1. Requests should be made at least three business days in advance of digging and can also be made on-line 24 hours a day at colorado811.org.