WELLFLEET — A fiber optic cable fire on Route 6 near Pamet Point Road took out telephone lines and blocked first responder communications from Wellfleet to Provincetown for several hours on Sunday, Sept. 8. Communications between the Outer Cape and the Barnstable County Sheriff’s office were disrupted as well.
“Phone lines and, potentially, 911 were down” for a few hours, Barnstable County Special Sheriff Jeff Perry said.
The fire affected a circuit that connects two radio towers in Truro and Orleans that are used to relay messages between county officers and the Outer Cape towns. “When that circuit is disconnected, the tower in the Lower Cape is operating on its own, so it loses connection to other parts of the Cape,” Perry said.
Because there is only one telephone line connecting the radio towers, “Any shared channel — 911, regular phone services, any emergency line — suffers the same vulnerability,” he explained. “If that was cut off, there’s no alternate routes.”
When county officials learned about the disruption, they sent a technical team to Wellfleet. Perry said the downed circuit was bypassed to restore communications.
Wellfleet Fire Chief Richard Pauley said he became aware of the interruption when radio communications and the emergency paging system stopped working. “Our pagers were down for a short time,” Pauley said. “Once they identified the problem, Verizon came down, and radio techs came out to work out the problem. There was a little delay with that.”
Pauley said he did not have an exact time frame for the incident and that he is still gathering information as to why the event occurred.
Truro Fire Chief Tim Collins said that the downed lines had little effect on his department’s response capabilities. “We have redundant systems in place here, as well as backup systems available,” he said. “We can get through to the county and other resources if we need to.”
Emergency lines can be affected by storms
This was not the first time that radio communications for emergency response centers have been interrupted. Because the radio lines are above ground, “They’re affected by storms,” Pauley said. “This happened two months ago, when we had a real bad storm go through. For whatever reason, it knocked out one of the repeaters. We found out about it right away, and repairs were done within an hour. We were able to use our backup system at that point.”
The Barnstable County Sheriff’s office coordinates dispatch for Wellfleet and many other towns throughout the Cape. Provincetown and Truro have their own dispatch system.
But the county is charged with coordinating mutual aid for the entire Lower Cape. If Provincetown or Truro need more resources than they have — say an emergency called for several ambulances at once — they would need to communicate with the county to get extra help.
When a telephone line goes down, Truro and Provincetown do not have direct communications to the mutual aid coordination center in Bourne. They can still communicate locally, however.
Fire chiefs listen to each other’s radios. If there were a disruption in Provincetown or Truro, “We [in Wellfleet] could still hear them,” said Pauley. “But the county could not hear P-town or Truro. If they needed an ambulance, they would have to utilize a different phone line or cell phone to contact the county. That would add time.”
The telephone cables used for emergency response are owned and maintained by the state and its technical services division.
Due to geography, Perry said, there are limited options for telecommunications on the Outer Cape. “Any time you lose communication, it’s problematic,” he said. “That’s why we have those backup systems in place.”
Pauley agreed. “The system is a good system, but when things like this happen, it becomes very problematic,” he said. “We’re trying make it more redundant so we have back up.”
Pauley said that adding a secondary phone line would be useful.
Perry said that the radio system “can always be improved.” The state is currently planning an upgrade to the radio system, with discussion of potentially going digital.