Monday morning Aug. 14 began like any other day. Rolled out of bed at 5:30, grabbed my robe, made my way to the kitchen for coffee, then slid back into bed with my husband to read the latest news on my phone. I know it sounds like a terrible way to begin the day but reading “the paper” in the morning is my lifelong habit.
Right around 6 a.m., we lost our internet connection. Was it our Wi-Fi? Maybe the modem? The weather was clear. In place of signal strength bars, an SOS flashed on my cell phone. Sure enough, CenturyLink’s internet was down. We’ve been on Verizon Wireless for years but don’t get a strong enough signal inside our house without Wi-Fi to connect to the internet, make calls, or send text messages. So, I picked up our landline to call another early riser to see if his internet was working. Our landline was dead.
I quickly dressed and drove up to the Longbranch Improvement Club and tried making a call on my cell from its big open field. Nope. Call failed.
No landline and no cellular service. The same thing happened three months ago: a simultaneous outage of both CenturyLink and Verizon. What was going on?
In the past, even when the electricity was out due to a storm or because a truck took out a power pole, KP residents could still make calls from their landline with an old plug-in phone that required no external electricity. With this failure in August, as well as the previous outage May 17, landlines were rendered useless.
The fire danger was very high and an excessive heat warning was in place that day, with expected high temps in the mid-90s. And yet for most of us, there was no way to call 911 for medical aid or to report a fire.
Astound (formerly Wave) customers were blissfully unaware there was any problem that day. Telephone, cable and internet service was normal. Starlink? No problem. By most accounts, AT&T cell service worked fine and the same was true for Comcast broadband customers.
However, the majority of homes on Key Peninsula are serviced by CenturyLink.
The outage lasted 16 hours. During that time, residents with a CenturyLink landline and/or Verizon Wireless could not make a call to 911 for help in an emergency. The post office relies on an internet connection as well. They remained open to let people pick up their mail, but no other business could be conducted or packages mailed out that day.
After talking with KP Fire Chief Nick Swinhart, I learned that the extent of the outage and potential for danger was worse than I imagined.
There was nothing unusual across the Kitsap County line where he lives in Port Orchard, but when the Chief arrived at Key Center headquarters at 7 a.m. he discovered it had no internet and no phone because all of their phones are internet-based. He later learned there was no internet or phone service at any of the KP stations.
“You can’t make a call to report it,” Swinhart said. “You can’t check telecoms for updates on the internet or communicate or text with anyone in the district,” he said. “It kind of reminds us how dependent we’ve become on technology.”
It really rattled him as a fire chief, and he knew it troubled his staff as well, “to think that people could have needed emergency help for hours and hours and had no way to call.”
In a statement provided to Key Peninsula Fire District several days after the outage by Lumen’s Western Washington Central Offices, spokesperson Jeffrey Parker wrote that although the company could not go into details about the incident:
“The Pierce County outage … was the result of a cut fiber and subsequent copper theft. Service has been restored, and we’re grateful to our customers for their patience throughout the event.”
The fire district still received emergency calls via South Sound 911 from KP residents who used other communication service providers; however, those calls came through for dispatch over VHF radios that run simultaneously to the individual cell phones typically used for dispatch now.
In a statement to KP News, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-6th) said, “Every Washingtonian needs access to dependable communication services, especially during emergencies. The recent disruption highlights a need to take a holistic look at the broader issues — like strengthening the security and resilience of our communications network. While the federal government is already working to improve connectivity across our regions, I’m committed to securing the tools leaders on the Key Peninsula need to keep communities safe, including resources to protect our communications and infrastructure.”
The internet is not just something we use to stream movies or play games. It is essential to practically every business, school and individual in this now not-so-new digital world.
If it’s this easy for copper thieves to disrupt the communication systems, we have bigger problems than we know. Something has to change. We deserve better.
For now, the message is clear: If you cannot call 911 but need assistance immediately, you are on your own.
It doesn’t take a natural disaster to effectively wipe out communications. Talk to your neighbors and make a plan because we may need each other far more than we realized.
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