Contributed photo/Public Records Request CenturyLink’s fiber cable, which creates internet and phone communications, including 911, is fraying.

Rock Island representatives want proof of CenturyLink’s 911 backup

If a CenturyLink cable breaks and causes a long-term outage, Rock Island Communications representatives want proof that 911 is backed up.

“We have to take them at face value, and I want CenturyLink to explain how it will work,” said Rock Island Executive Vice President Gerry Lawlor, who spoke at the last two San Juan County Council meetings to ask that the council help with a 911 contingency plan in the wake of an outage.

A Washington Department of Natural Resources representative said CenturyLink’s cable has entered into OPALCO’s underwater easement and DNR has requested that CenturyLink remove it. It has been attached since 1999.

“The cables have overlapped, which was caused by tidal action,” said Bob Redling with the DNR.

At the Jan. 10 council meeting, Lawlor said OPALCO can’t service its cable without tampering with CenturyLink’s. He said it could break during this summer’s maintenance update, or anytime, as the opened, jagged casing is fraying the cable.

A CenturyLink representative said the cable is protected and will be removed from OPALCO’s state-designated cable jurisdiction once their permits are granted to work on it.

“It’s going to happen again, and shame on us if we don’t prepare for it,” Lawlor told The Journal.

When San Juan County dispatch receives a call, it goes over CenturyLink’s fiber cables, as the company is Washington’s 911 service provider.

In 2015, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission forced CenturyLink to create a wireless backup system for landline calls, including those to 911. That was after the last major outage in the San Juans in 2013, when a CenturyLink cable broke, leaving parts of the island without phone or internet access until it was completely restored in 10 days.

On Jan. 10, Lawlor provided the county council with photos of a frayed CenturyLink cable (pictured with this story) — the same one that broke in 2013 from fraying, he said.

Tony Harrell, San Juan County IT manager, said there are no plans to test the system. At the Jan. 30 council meeting, Dave Halloran, the county’s 911 coordinator, said according to a Centurylink report, double the islands’ regular voice traffic was supported on their microwave backup system after a 2015 car accident in Anacortes knocked out CenturyLink voice services for the islands.

Harrell told the Journal that during that outage, 911 dispatch still received calls through CenturyLink’s wireless backup system.

Dan Burke, Rock Island’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, would like to see the system tested regularly, under emergency situations.

“Are they able to handle all of our emergency traffic for an extended period of time?” said Burke to the Journal.

Lawlor recommended testing services based on varying weather conditions.

When asked about tests for CenturyLink’s 911 backup services after the Jan. 30 meeting, Doug Patterson of CenturyLink said, “it already worked [in the 2015 outage].”

San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs said when minimal phone services were restored after the 2013 outage, only interisland calls could be made. Islanders, outside San Juan Island, couldn’t reach the dispatch in Friday Harbor.

People had to call the fire stations on their islands, which radioed the dispatcher on San Juan, said Brendan Cowan, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management.

According to Cowan, that model wouldn’t work for extended outages.

“For outages lasting a week or more, there would not be enough volunteers to staff those stations; we’d need another solution,” said Cowan.

He added that roughly 40 percent of the services stopped by the 2013 outage were critical and caused major issues for residents and businesses, and the rest were more “lifestyle disruptions,” like entertainment through the internet.

DNR has been requesting that CenturyLink remove its cable from OPALCO’s licensed area for more than a year, according to Redling. DNR designates when and where cables can be installed. CenturyLink’s cable is not allowed to be on or in OPALCO’s private easement underwater, said Redling.

He added that CenturyLink has placed at least two cables without the DNR’s permission around San Juan Island.

The questioned cable is on land, near Pear Point, making it easy to see the fiber jutting out of the cable’s jagged seal, which is cutting and wearing it down, said Burke.

He added that more frayed cable could be underwater, which Rock Island employees can’t readily see.

According to a CenturyLink representative, this is common for cables that endure wear and tear from “forces of nature.”

“There are several layers of protection for the fiber optics inside the cable, and we do not believe there is a risk at this time,” said Mark Molzen of CenturyLink, who did not give an exact date when the cable permits would be obtained.

Lawlor also told the council that the same CenturyLink cable is attached to OPALCO’s power cable with rope and wire for support, and could break when OPALCO services it this summer.

When questioned by The Journal, a CenturyLink representative did not explain why its cable is attached to OPALCO’s, but did say “the cable was attached with wire since 1999.”

“I’m going to be blunt, it’s not ideal,” said a CenturyLink representative, about the cable’s placement at the Jan. 30 council meeting.

OPALCO staff has been requesting CenturyLink detach its cable from OPALCO’s for about a year, said Suzanne Olson of OPALCO public relations.

In August 2016, said Burke, additional wire and rope and even duct tape were added to secure Centurylink’s cable to OPALCO’s, running from Lopez to San Juan.

Lawlor said Rock Island employees aren’t responsible if a break occurs, but will help – just like they did in 2013 – if it happens again.

“This crippled the community we care about,” said Lawlor about the 2013 outage. “We’re not going to sit by and let it break.”

CenturyLink is the only landline provider in the county, which is why they are the 911 service provider and regulated by the state.

After the 2013 outage, CenturyLink added radio or microwave connections, which are similar to a very reliable form of wifi for voice and data.

If the CenturyLink cable broke, landlines, San Juan County 911 dispatch and Verizon cell phone calls would be routed through this system, according to Lawlor. Most cell phone connections would not be affected by the cable break, but Verizon’s connections are built into the CenturyLink fiber cable.

The Journal reported, last month that cell phone 911 calls are often misdirected because they use the closest signal from cell phone poles’ locations, not the callers’.

Unreliable cell phone tracking has led to preliminary plans by the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a next-generation 911 model that uses the internet to track locations, the way an Uber app does.

Lawlor suggested that the county should try similar ways to contact islanders to 911, like creating a county 911 Facebook page.

CenturyLink provides DSL connections, which run through telephone lines. Islanders’ fiber and wireless internet connections would not be affected, by a CenturyLink cable break as the company doesn’t provide those services, said Lawlor.

“What is the best way dispatch can be reached in the county, other than a telephone?” asked Lawlor. “We all lived the nightmare, so let’s make sure we learned our lesson.”

Stay tuned to the Journal and Sounder for more coverage on this topic.