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Fire Victims Frustrated by Lack of Wireless Connectivity

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PG&E employees work in Santa Rosa on Oct. 9,2017, after the Tubbs Fire.  (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

AT&T has deployed mobile cell sites in Santa Rosa, Willits and the Napa Town & County Fairgrounds in order to connect customers and emergency responders who have been without wireless service and connectivity since early Monday, when wildfires burned through the North Bay.

“These Satellite COLTs (cell on light trucks) are mobile cell sites that link to the AT&T network via satellite and don’t rely on commercial power availability,” stated a news release from AT&T issued Tuesday afternoon.

Cellphones that we all have become reliant on have limited ability to connect during these wildfires.

Fire victims have struggled to get in touch with family and friends because of down cell service. Emergency responders are also having trouble communicating with each other.

“That includes us, too,” Cal Fire Staff Chief David Shew said. “We are pretty much reliant on our radio traffic with our handheld radios and radios in our vehicles.”

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The problem with connectivity starts with power and fiber cable damage.

Fiber lines overhead on utility poles have likely been damaged by the fire, according to a Comcast blog published by the company on Tuesday. If the utility poles have fallen down, this could mean the fiber lines are on the ground, too.

“This is a multilayered process,” the Comcast blog post says. “PG&E is responsible for installing new power poles and repairing the infrastructure needed to supply power to the community. Once that’s in place, we can then attach services to the home.”

Comcast has expanded Wi-Fi hotspots to the public for free. Typically, only paying customers can use the hotspots.

With power outages and restricted access to fire zones to make repairs, cell service continues to be spotty or nonexistent, depending on location. The huge demand on cell towers that are active in the area is slowing down communication.

Norma McCabe of northern Napa County said she lost cell service Monday morning. She could see the fire moving south and had trouble reaching her 92-year-old father-in-law to check on him since he lives on the south side of town.

“We had no way to communicate with him other than driving over there,” McCabe said. Her father-in-law is OK, she said, and she is using his internet connection to make calls over Wi-Fi.

Emergency communication experts say there are a couple of things that fire victims can do to relay messages in these situations:

  • Send text messages. They require less demand from cell towers.
  • Change your cellphone setting to allow voice calls over Wi-Fi.
  • Try using social media apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to make Wi-Fi calls.
  • Update your social media profiles with your safety status, and tell friends and family when you’ll be checking in again.
  • Change your voicemail welcome message when you get cell or Wi-Fi service, and use that to update friends and family on your safety status, so when calls don’t come through, people can hear the information.

In addition to mobile cell sites, AT&T is staging and refueling generators in Santa Rosa. It has also installed charging stations at at Napa Valley College, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.

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