Our Crumbling Communication System in The Age of Technology

2020 is the year we no longer question.

Quite frankly, I am just sitting back and letting it roll through, analyzing all the data and learning opportunities of where I can improve upon, that it surely is bringing.

I live in Tillamook County. And this month brought mass fires through our state. Tillamook didn’t escape this disaster as it did with the Murder Hornets and the Meth Alligators.

I should probably stop now and remind you my sense of humor will not be hidden even in these horrid times for so many that have lost so much. We all cope in different ways. This is mine.

Carrying on:

I have been noticing something odd in the last few years and it has to do with our communication system. The way in which we pass information to others and get the word out of disaster or such…. Is not as it used to be.

Let’s first remember, the original telephone service in short was genius in how it was created. It was well thought out and created in a way that even if we lost power… our phones will still work. Hence the reason I still actually have an old fashioned free AT&T phone I have owned for 35+ years. I can plug it into a phone jack and it will still make a call.

Even if I don’t have actual phone service. If there is a line connecting it to the actual phone company it will work to, at least, call 911 if I was to have an emergency. Or it used to.

That’s not guaranteed anymore.

Let me stop here and remind you that I was a 911 dispatcher for a decade and I have taken many calls from home phones that didn’t have service that were dire emergencies. This was of course… before our phone system was changed.

So many in this day don’t have home phone’s. They opt for cell phone’s only and there is even issues in this day and age with that. Recently, in the last year I have noticed more and more complaining about poor service. People switching carriers in an attempt to get better service, only to find it didn’t solve their issue. I am starting to believe it’s our cell towers. And not just in this area. I have spotty service in bigger cities that I have traveled to and hear of others complaining of the same. Are our towers overloaded? Old? Questions that I would love to have answers to.

First, let’s start with the old fashioned home phone. I have Centurylink. An old system that was only offered up in the part of the hill I live on. We get horrible service most of the time. But we don’t complain because we get service. The phone line carries our home phone service and internet service. It is, one step above dial up. I might add you don’t use this phone line to talk about private issues as it has been known to create a ‘partyline’ effect with your neighbors phone service. I know things I don’t want to know about my neighbors. We will stop at that!

Because they know the same about me till we all figured it out.

In regards to the internet, bring a book when you want to surf… because while you wait for a webpage to load you will need something to do. And zoom meetings are not possible. Trust me.. They are painful.

However, during this last disaster we were the only one’s that had service. The old antiquated lines were still delivering us phone and internet service. Not so for the people 2 miles away in town. The people in town, who had Spectrum phone and internet service had nothing. They still had cell service and could switch over to that, but with so many on it, I was hearing of complaints of being kicked off and timing out.

The people in the town further to the east of us had no cell service available to them. They had no internet, no phone, and with the lack of cell tower signal reaching them (a decision they voted against having when towers were first being installed) they had no cell service or data signals.

Keep in mind, in the olden days our phone system was set up to work, even when the power was out. The original designers of our system knew that if they created a system that we were going to become dependent on, wanted a system that wouldn’t fail us. Now, we have people that even if they had power would still have no phone service. Meaning, no way to get word out to the houses on the next block that a massive fire was coming their way.

No way for the 911 system to send an emergency phone alert to people in an entire town to ‘flee now’… That fire was at their door.

Here’s where we talk about cell phones. Many lost power. Power was being shut off to prevent the lines from arching and starting fires. Cell phone batteries were dying and there was no way to charge them. So even if a massive text alert went out.. which in some area’s they did. It couldn’t be relied upon to reach everyone. Because many people had no way to charge their phones.

It truly was a recipe for disaster as I was reading the accounts of what happened.

But you might be thinking a scanner would be a good option. And you would be correct.. in some area’s. But here’s the deal on that. Many agencies have gone to a frequency that isn’t picked up on the household scanner… It’s not so in my area. But the night of the wicked wind’s was evident that the scanner also was not a reliable source.

I live in an area that doesn’t have good reception for the scanner. Tillamook county is long and skinny and even with all the special frequencies programmed in, there are sections of the county I can not get. Like I can’t here dispatch… but if the officer is talking on the south frequency I can hear him. So over the air on the actual scanner I get part of the conversation… but not all. So I often listen to the scanner through the scanner app on my phone.

Which is great as long as I have power to keep the phone charged…. Right?

As I sat up listening to the activity going on the scanner became totally quiet. It was then I went to the Facebook scanner groups for our county and learned, there is a power outage that feeds the scanner into the app.

We are all, in my part of the county, in the dark of any activity going on. With the exception of the one’s that have actual scanners and back up power that were relaying the information through Facebook to us.

There are fires 14 miles to the south of me and 25 miles to the north. I stayed up, peering out the windows for a possible red glow that would be my only warning unless I had someone call me or message me.

But what about the community that didn’t have cell, internet, or home phone and now no scanner due to their mountains?

The next day while checking on family in my immediate area I realized they had no clue as to what was going on. That was the moment we set up the old fashioned phone tree. I would check with them twice a day and give them the information I had through their cell phone’s. They would relay it to the people in their area. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was easing some anxiety as the fires were being put out and the town of Lincoln City was being saved.

That little town that had no way of communicating… would need to have had someone leave the area to get the information to bring it back. I have yet to hear of someone that had phone service in that area… I am sure someone there did… I will keep looking.

I sit here, in the age of technology with the super highway that we all have become so dependent on and wonder how we can fix these holes that we have obviously found.

Agencies took to their Facebook and websites to share the most up to date information… But did they realize that many in the community had no way to check the sites? and did they realize that their own websites couldn’t handle the traffic it was getting and we were getting error codes?

I would like to point out that I never got an error code with Facebook. It was able to handle the traffic.

My reason for pointing this out is to find a way to fix as many of these issue’s as possible.

For instances, we have learned that Facebook is more stable then a small town’s website. Instead of pointing people to the website for information… maybe we have learned that posting it directly to Facebook and the website would be the best option?

I commend the actual agencies that were posting their updates as often as they did on their Facebook site’s. People were able to like and follow the page and get direct updates delivered as a notification to their phone via Facebook. It was amazing to watch.

Personally as individuals, I feel we are the one’s ultimately responsible for our safety. With that in mind I have keep a battery pack charged in my purse at all times. It will fully charge my phone 2.5 times before it needs to be recharged.

I rarely, if ever let the car gas tank go below 1/2 a tank. This way I can deliver information to the area’s that are shut off if needed. The gas line’s were long with people trying to fill up.

I have extra batteries for the scanner. Because at least I can get half the conversation when they are in my area.

I am learning and taking note of which phone service people in my area have, and their secondary cell/home numbers area in written form so I can access them at anytime with or without power or service.

I think it should be noted that in an emergency we should limit our cell phone usage to emergency use only. To free the tower to the responder’s that were having issue’s getting their messages received and sent.

And honestly, I am thinking the old way of having a phone tree/ neighborhood delivering system is the way to go.

We need to remember, that during an emergency, not all neighbors will be notified and know what to do. It really is up to us individually to find ways to help get the word out in the best way possible for each of us. That will look totally different to you as it does to me.

In short, I saw our first responder’s do the most amazing job with what they had to work with. Which in my county was limited! I think our technology failed us all. We have come to know, love and depend upon it. Those of us that had the services can’t imagine what it was like for people without it. They literally had no clue as to if they were being evacuated or they were safe. Maybe it’s time to step back, analyze the different area’s in our county and the different services and how they were working and finding ways to create redundancy, so everyone is informed and can make the best choice for themselves. Back ups to our back ups. So when a disaster strikes…. people won’t be left in the dark.

And through this all I never once heard a HAM radio operator surface with what was going on…. I will have to check with my HAM friends and see what there take is on this.

When I was young my mother always had me memorize Aunt Jean’s phone number. “If anything ever happens to you or us and we get seperated and you can’t call home… call Aunt Jean.” She lived several hours away from all of us at the time and if we all have an emergency at the same time… well then… we were in trouble.

But that leads me to wonder…. Do you all have an Aunt Jean? Someone out of the area that you can make contact with so everyone that calls her can learn you all are safe?

There is something to be said about preparedness and plans isn’t there?

I’m pretty sure my parent’s were prepper’s and never told me.

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