In the early morning of Sunday, June 18, residents on Orcas, Decatur and Blakely Islands lost the ability to make landline calls, including to 911. Cell phone and internet services were not affected.
An official from CenturyLink — the islands’ only landline provider — said the outage lasted 13 hours. CenturyLink officials declined to explain why the outage occurred when asked by Journal staff.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, posted the following about the outage on social media on June 18:
“The fact that we are in this situation again with CenturyLink is totally unacceptable. The fact that they have yet to post anything about their outage and the fact that our 911 emergency service is out, is an outrage.”
A representative of Ranker’s confirmed that he will have separate meetings with the chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Committee and CenturyLink officials, next week, to discuss the service interruption.
San Juan County Undersheriff Brent Johnson said dispatch wasn’t notified of any missed emergencies once lines were fixed. During the outage, 911 calls could still be made on cell phones.
Robin DeLazerda, the San Juan County lead dispatcher, said islanders notified emergency service providers by 7 a.m. that landlines were down on Orcas. Dispatchers first heard Orcas 911 landline calls weren’t working at 10:25 a.m.
At 11:52 p.m., a CenturyLink technician on Orcas informed dispatch that repairs were in progress. CenturyLink officials emailed dispatch at 12:48 p.m., explaining that some islanders could not make landline calls, including to 911. Dispatch received another CenturyLink email at around 7 p.m., indicating services were fixed at 6:15 p.m.
According to the Washington UTC, CenturyLink serves about 1 million phone lines and provides 911 services for Washington’s seven million residents. During this outage, 1,622 local customers were affected, according to a UTC representative. There were no other CenturyLink landline outages at that time in the state.
To reach the county dispatch office in Friday Harbor, volunteer radio operators from Orcas Island Fire and Rescue and the San Juan County Amateur Radio Society were posted at several fire stations on Orcas Island, according to Brendan Cowan, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management. This announcement was posted on the DEM’s Facebook page at about 1 p.m. on June 18.
That was the same procedure used during the 2013 outage when a CenturyLink cable broke, leaving parts of the island without phone or internet access until it was completely restored after 10 days.
According to the Washington UTC, CenturyLink was penalized for its inadequate response to that outage. They were fined $173,210 in 2015 and paid $50,000 after reaching a settlement. The settlement included provisions for CenturyLink to report outages. This is in addition to state laws about reporting service interruptions.
On June 1, state regulators issued the remaining $123,210 of the original fine when CenturyLink failed to meet those new requirements on reporting outages in southern Washington. In November 2016, about 100,000 Klickitat and Skamania County residents were without 911 service for two days.
In addition to issuing a fine to CenturyLink after the 2013 outage, the Washington UTC required CenturyLink staff to add microwave connections as a backup to 911’s wire connection. These systems are similar to a very reliable form of Wi-Fi for voice and data and would be used to support emergency calls if another cable broke, said CenturyLink representative Mark Molzen.
Last January, CenturyLink officials assured the islands’ 911 calls are backed up. The affirmation came after officials from the local power cooperative, OPALCO, notified San Juan County Council that the same CenturyLink cable that broke in 2013 is fraying. CenturyLink officials attested the cable’s standard wear and tear would not cause a break, but agreed to replace and move it so OPALCO employees could replace their power cable nearby.
Molzen said employees are working on the “land portion” of the cable replacement, while the “water crossing” portion will start in early August. CenturyLink officials have been permitted to work since June 16.
Emergency services will not be affected during construction, he added.
“In the unlikely event that the submarine cable breaks, there would be no impact to 911 service,” said Molzen. “We would work to restore service as quickly as possible.”
OPALCO Public Relations Administrator Suzanne Olson disagrees. There is “reasonable potential” for the cable to break during replacement, she said; it’s entangled with OPACLO’s power cable in at least five places and its weak condition could rip it. Repair would take 10 days, she added.
OPALCO employees will replace their power cable, in the same location, in September. This will supplant the existing cable, installed in 1977, and should last 50 years, according to oplaco.com. It will carry electricity and fiber internet connections. Fiber creates high-speed internet connections, according to Rock Island Communications, which is a subsidiary of OPALCO and sells internet service to islanders.
For information on OPALCO’s cable, visit www.opalco.com/power-system/submarine-cable-project. For information on CenturyLink, visit www.centurylink.com.