Communications blackout

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 14, 2003

Covington County and nearly all of south Alabama was blanketed by a communications blackout Monday afternoon leaving telephone service, Internet service and cellular service in disarray; and the E-911 system non-operational.

According to Sharon Owens of CenturyTel in Andalusia, the problem began with a cut fiber optic line on U.S. 331 South near Brantley in Crenshaw County.

"We have a fiber optic line south of Brantley that was cut," Owens said. "The backup ring did not take over and we are continuing to investigate what happened. Right now, we don't have an explanation as to what happened and why the backup did not work."

The blackout, which began around 1:45 p.m., lasted until 5:45 p.m., leaving south Alabama with marginal telephone services. The problem was not isolated to Covington County, with Owens saying telephone customers from Greenville, all the way to Dothan were affected.

"It was not isolated to here," she said. "There was total isolation all the way to Dothan."

With the blackout, customers found it difficult to use the telephone - if they were able to use it at all.

In Covington County, citizens of Andalusia could call within the city limits on the 222 exchange, and most 427 exchanges, but were unable to call Opp, Florala, Red Level or Gantt exchanges. The situation was the same for each municipality.

Perhaps the greatest effect of the blackout was the loss the E-911 service to the county.

According to Susan Carpenter, director of E-911, the problem had a significant impact on the emergency service.

"Our circuits were affected," Carpenter said. "The emergency lines (were) down, and CenturyTel (was) working on rerouting the necessary emergency lines to get E-911 back operational."

In the event of an emergency, citizens seeking immediate assistance would have had to call their local police department directly.

"We don't know of anything that has been affected to a degree that our service to the citizens of Andalusia has been affected," said Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams. "People (could still) dial our direct office line in case of an emergency. We (were) also available to relay messages to our units via two-way radios, dispatch, etc."

In Opp, it was much the same.

"We're going on Statenet," said Officer Jason Blue, referring to a statewide radio frequency. "People (could) also call our direct line for assistance."

On the county level, the Covington County Sheriff's Department stepped up patrols in the county to help ensure a safe environment.

"Command is linc accessible," said Captain Jerry Edgar. "Our communications are 99 percent radio or linc, so we were able to stay in constant communication with each other. We (will) step up patrols in the county until communications are restored to normal to make sure things are safe."

In addition to the loss of telephone service and 911 access, Edgar said he had other concerns as well.

"I'm concerned that another agency out of the county might need to ask us for assistance or if they stop someone who might be wanted in this county

and they couldn't get in contact with us," he said. "Of course, I'm also extremely concerned about people trying to call in for help. Every call is serious to the person who makes that call. This is a unique situation, and we're going to hope for the best."

While the fiber optic situation was occurring near Brantley, CenturyTel was hit with a second, unrelated problem when a dump truck tore down a fiber optic cable in Samson.

Kevin Jordan and Eubie White, linemen with CenturyTel traveled to Samson from Andalusia to exam that problem.

"It drove under the wire with the dump up," White said, who added the Samson incident was not part of the multi-county outage. "They're still looking into that. It's just a coincidence that this happened at the same time."

As for cellular telephone service, both Alltel and Unicel were affected.

"We can call some land-line numbers," said Jason Hawkins, sales representative with Alltel in Andalusia. "Our cellular numbers are out on for a lot of customers, but some customers can make Alltel to Alltel calls."

At Unicel, Tonya McCurley spent her afternoon fielding customer's questions who were walking in the store wondering what was going on.

"People have been coming in all afternoon asking what the problems were," McCurley said. "We just told them what we knew. We have a land-line based connection to our main tower in Enterprise, so we were greatly affected."

With the loss of telephone communications also came a loss of many business transactions.

"I haven't been able to post payments to accounts or sell merchandise," McCurley said. "People have been coming in and saying they haven't been able to perform their banking, use their credit cards

anything. I guess it's one of those times when you don't realize how much you depend on the telephone until you can't use it

for anything."