Valley towns ‘damn lucky’ during outage
As phone and Internet service returned to the Roaring Fork Valley on Wednesday morning after a 16-hour outage, law enforcement and emergency crews breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The outage began when a contractor severed a fiber-optic cable near Ironbridge, south of Glenwood Springs, around 5 p.m. Tuesday, cutting off CenturyLink phone and Internet service as well as mobile phone service carriers that use those lines to connect local cell towers.
Many residents from Carbondale to Aspen suddenly found themselves unable to dial 911.
“We’re damn lucky something didn’t happen,” said Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District Chief Ron Leach. “If it had, it could have been really bad here.”
During the outage, local radio stations instructed residents to go to their nearest police, sheriff or fire station in case of emergency – a message that was echoed with limited effect by the phone- and email-based Pitkin County alert system.
“As far as we know, the backup systems put in place were effective and there were no major emergencies during the outage,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.
In Carbondale, police handled 11 incidents during the outage, many of them building checks.
“It was very quiet. We were fortunate,” said Lt. Chris Wurtsmith. “I’ve never in 20 years seen an interruption in communication last so long.”
Wurtsmith stayed late Tuesday until a pair of Garfield County Sheriff’s deputies showed up to help out. In Pitkin County, deputies were deployed to outlying areas including Old Snowmass, Meredith and Redstone and stationed at fire stations for the night in case of emergencies in those more remote communities.
Aspen police took to the streets to alert local business owners of the issue and to ensure they were able to contact emergency services.
Glenwood Springs avoided the outage despite being the closest town to the accident.
Wurtsmith’s top focus was high-risk individuals, including the elderly.
“Heritage Park was our biggest concern, and we were paying them lots of visits,” he said. Officers provided the nursing home with a police radio, and planned to do the same at local schools when the phones came back at around 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Otherwise, a lot of the responsibility for community safety fell on residents themselves.
“When we have a communication interruption, folks need to be neighborly and check on each other,” said Wurtsmith. “That’s the beauty of living in a small town.”
For the most part, Carbondale seemed to take the various inconveniences of the outage in stride.
The popular Village Smithy restaurant posted a sign saying “cash preferred,” but because of experience with outages, had kept its credit card imprint machine.
“We’re kind of an old-fashioned establishment,” said Laura Mahr, a Smithy manager. “We have the common sense to get through it without technology.”
Some throwback elements took some explaining to younger residents. One Carbondale Middle School teacher had to explain the term “land line” to her fifth-grade class in order to properly describe the scope of the outage.
At Alpine Bank in Carbondale, it was nearly business as usual, according branch manager Ian Bays.
“We have backup systems, so everything went pretty smooth all things considered,” he said.
Roaring Fork Family Physicians was without phones or medical records, and was obliged to shut down its fire alarm, which kept going off due to the lack of connection, according to receptionist Connie Williams. Still, they persevered.
“Fortunately, our doctors know their patients pretty well,” Williams said.
“As soon as it all came back, the phone started ringing off the hook,” she added.
Town streets crewman Casey O’Flannery was among residents who found the upside of the outage.
“I went out with some friends last night and no one had their face glued to their phone,” he said. “We actually had to talk to each other.”
At Roaring Fork High School, attendance lines were down, so some parents were dropping off written excuses, just like the old days.
“I met three parents that I’ve never seen before,” RFHS attendance clerk and community liaison Katia Curbelo-DelValle said.
“I heard some kids say, ‘I can’t do anything,’ Well, yes you can, you can write a paper,” she added.
Assistant Principal Kelsie Goodman noted that the Tuesday night Baccalaureate program and the start of school Wednesday was “completely free of any cell phone interruptions. That was nice, actually.”
Bells signaling class time were also down, so the school used cow bells instead.
It was fitting: A cattle drive went through Carbondale from east to west before 7 a.m.
It was just around that time that a repair crew, which had worked through the night, found more damage.
The return of service, beginning with most cell phones around 9 a.m. and more or less complete by noon, brought new questions to the forefront: How did such a complete communication breakdown occur? What can be done to prevent it in the future, or at least minimize the impact?
CenturyLink spokeswoman Sara Spaulding said by phone that the company would conduct an investigation of the incident.
“We are trying to gather all the information we can, and how it happened,” Spaulding said. “We do take outages very seriously, and we know how disruptive they can be for our customers. We do want to find out what happened and why.”
She declined to identify the contractor that damaged the cable, or speculate as to what the possible penalties could be.
An electricity blackout in Aspen last year prompted a $17,324 reimbursement agreement between the city and the two companies fingered for it.
As to how to better handle a similar situation in the future, Carbondale police don’t yet have specific plans, but they’re working on it.
“We’re all going to sit down and talk about options,” said Wurtsmith.
Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson is giving it some thought as well.
“We are extremely reliant, and I think overconfident, upon our technological advances,” he said. “If somebody needs to call 911 and nothing’s working, they have a problem, and I don’t know of a backup to that.”
Like Wurtsmith, he emphasized the need for community cooperation.
“We’ve always seen that the worse it is, the more people help each other,” he said.
[iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/129019533” width=”500” height=”282” frameborder=”0” webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen> /]
Rick Carlson shot this video of Wednesday of a cattle drive through Carbondale as the town grappled with a loss of phone and Internet service.
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