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Cell system failures in CA fires

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bb911

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Verizon brought in a portable generator to one of their sites (probably a shared site) near Devore Heights (SoCal). Level terrain in the foothills. Brought it in though a few days after the PSPSs started in the area. 3 huge "flag poles" at a park are cell towers without the typical antennas.
 

mmckenna

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Lots of folks are predicting that with the coming of FirstNet, the cell system will be able to handle nearly all emergency communications needs. Recent experience from wildfires in California suggests otherwise. Check out this article in the LA Times

California suffered widespread cellphone outages during fires. A big earthquake would be much worse
Most of the cell sites have no more than 8 hours of battery backup and most don't have generators. Getting a few hours out of them is pure luck. Battery maintenance isn't always what it should be.

Verizon and AT&T brought in trailered generators to one of my sites. But it wasn't fires, it was the %*@# PG&E outages. Verizon and AT&T still has them on site.

The plan was FirstNet was supposed to improve key sites, but not all of them. No public safety agency should be relying on FirstNet for their only form of communications.
 

AK_SAR

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Most of the cell sites have no more than 8 hours of battery backup and most don't have generators. Getting a few hours out of them is pure luck. Battery maintenance isn't always what it should be.

Verizon and AT&T brought in trailered generators to one of my sites. But it wasn't fires, it was the %*@# PG&E outages. Verizon and AT&T still has them on site.

The plan was FirstNet was supposed to improve key sites, but not all of them. No public safety agency should be relying on FirstNet for their only form of communications.
When I went to a FirstNet presentation awhile back, they said it was going to do just about everything except cure cancer! :)
However, their disaster plan seems to revolve around moving in portable generators, COWs, COLTs, etc. The problem with relying on all that livestock is that it assumes that road access to those sites will still be open. Might not be the case after a big quake. Another aspect might be security for those portable generators and fuel shipments. At a talk on the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster, the speaker said several generators left running at cell sites were stolen, and some fuel shipments to sites running on generators were highjacked.

Full disclosure: I'm not anti-FirstNet. My volunteer team has been given the option of getting FirstNet accounts, and I've done so. It was a good excuse to upgrade my phone! As volunteers, we as individuals have to pay for the account (not a public agency), however their rates are quite attractive. In general I think FirstNet is a good idea, and it will probably work well for routine emergency operations. However, I think FirstNet is being oversold in regards to its reliability for major area wide disasters!
 

mmckenna

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Our PD is running dual SIM Cradlepoint modems, one FirstNet SIM, one Verizon SIM, not to mention WiFi.
Seems to be working out OK.

I was at APCO last year and they mentioned the same issue in Florida. They had generator stolen. They had other agencies cut fences and tie into other agencies generators. Propane trucks were getting hijacked by local PD's needing their tanks filled. In other words, poor planning was mitigated by stealing from other agencies.

I think FirstNet is fine, too, as long as people understand it's built on top of a consumer convenience service. Anyone who relies on cellular in an emergency gets what they get.
 

12dbsinad

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Don't worry about the generators. FirstNet sites that are connected with fiber on overhead poles will be the first to go down in an earthquake or fire.
Yep! I say this daily! A site is only as good as it's backhaul, at least in the cellular world. Most all sites backhaul with contracted fiber companies. It's the most cost effective and it provides the necessary bandwidth.
 

mmckenna

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I laugh at these people that think FirstNet is coming in and whipping out LMR radios. I won't mention any names lol.
Reminds me of when Nextel showed up. Our chief at the time was all ready to toss all the VHF radios and give every officer an R-750. I pointed out the issues, but I was just a "radio guy" and didn't understand modern technology. They trialed it for a few weeks, and they quietly moved back to VHF.

Just because someone has chief stars or butter bars on their collars doesn't mean they are savvy to how radios work.
 

ko6jw_2

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As ARES DEC for Santa Barbara County I was invited to a meeting of "critical communication infrastructure providers" at our county EOC. There are several things to consider. One is that many cell sites don't have generators. The batteries are only intended to bridge short term power outages or, where there are generators, to keep the system running while the generator comes on line. Even where there are generators they still need to be refueled. During the Thomas Fire we found that the generators on Santa Ynez Peak (major cell site for all providers) had about three days of propane. With the fire burning on all sides it was difficult to get a fuel delivery. It was done at extreme cost ($10+ per gallon). The USFS building which houses the county fire repeaters as well had air conditioning problems because the air conditioning was not connected to the generator.

These are the obvious issues. However, none of cable/telephone/internet providers have emergency power in the field. Their central offices have power back up, but the grid does not. Look at four hours tops. Plus, few people have backup power for their modems at home. Mine does, but it only powers the telephone, not the internet.

All these communication systems eventually rely on a fiber optic back bone. If that fails everything goes down, even satellite phones since they ultimately fall back on ground based systems.

I asked a Verizon rep at the meeting how much excess capacity his system had when everyone is trying to make calls. He gave me a dirty look and said about 20%. Thus, even if the power doesn't fail, the system could crash anyway and 20% is optimistic.

One of the providers asked me how ham radio would do in an emergency. I replied that we have back up power at all repeater sites and that other than our personal stations we had no infrastructure to fail.

As I was leaving the meeting I talked to one of the county emergency managers. I said that the short answer is that we're doomed. He agreed.
 

zerg901

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How about if each city had 1 emergency cellular site on top of the tallest building. An extremely hardened site. Intended just to handle calls to 911. And maybe to send out wireless emergency alerts also. Would that be doable somehow?
 

mmckenna

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How about if each city had 1 emergency cellular site on top of the tallest building. An extremely hardened site. Intended just to handle calls to 911. And maybe to send out wireless emergency alerts also. Would that be doable somehow?
Not really.
Cell sites are not usually set up to cover wide areas. They are designed to cover their "cell".
Many landlords don't want generators, especially on roof tops, or in downtown areas where real estate is expensive. Battery systems are very heavy, and floor loading becomes an issue. In wilderness area, forests, etc. storing large amounts of fuel is an issue. Getting fuel to the site is a challenge. Solar can work, but it takes a lot of panels to be reliable, and usually an additional energy source just in case.
At common cellular frequencies, coverage over wide areas becomes a challenge.

We already have tools to do this. It is AM broadcast radio. FM broadcast radio. Broadcast TV stations, all using the EAS system.
Then we have NOAA alerts, which can handle EAS and other localized alerts.

People should have a battery powered AM/FM radio and ideally, a radio with NOAA capability. Not expensive. Most people have them in their car, but forget how to use them.

Some cities have alert sirens and/or audio alert systems which are a good resource.
 

ko6jw_2

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In my area broadcast radio is useless. There are no local AM stations and the local FM station is automated and remote controlled. Yes, they are part of the county's emergency system, but they will just relay canned announcements and have no ability to do live news.

Santa Barbara County is exploring the use of low power AM stations (10 watts) to broadcast emergency information. There is one in operation now which is owned by a volunteer fire company. It only covers their area and does a good job. The county wants to fund three more. If they do it will be a start, but it won't cover the entire county.

The primary complaint from the public is that they don't get information quickly enough. If you live in a major metropolitan area you'll get live news coverage. In rural areas not so much or at all. Yet, these are the areas most at risk from fires.
 

W5lz

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There are quite a number of 'departments', services'. whatever that do well in getting information to those of interest. None of them can do it all, just too much information and too costly. "Well, shouldn't safety be a major concern?" ...maybe with your bank account, but not with mine! At least, not unless it concerns me directly, you know?
 

W9BU

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Several counties in central Indiana have low-power AM transmitters that are in the hands of the county health departments or county emergency management agencies. There are some issues with these devices:

1. The manufacturers tend to state the range of these transmitters in terms of ideal conditions. Medium-wave AM is kinda fickle about antennas and RF interference. As a result, the effective range of these transmitters is often not what the manufacturer promises. A low-power AM transmitter with a severely-compromised antenna will only be good for a couple of miles of range. Think in terms of the TIS transmitters that are sometimes set up at highway rest areas.

2. The people responsible for deploying these devices really need to train with them. They need to know how to prepare the audio file that is being transmitted so that the right things are being said in a clear and understandable manner. The audio levels have to be set correctly. And, the antennas have to be set up by the book. That includes the radials that have to be spread out under the base of the antenna.

3. The public needs to know how to receive these broadcasts. As previously stated, not many people have a portable, battery-powered broadcast band AM receiver any more. And, broadcast AM receivers are slowly disappearing from modern automobiles. Once you cross the equipment hurdle, you need a way to get the word out about what frequency to listen to. You can't just expect people to know to tune to 1710 AM or whatever frequency you are using if its something they have never done before.
 

bharvey2

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Don't worry about the generators. FirstNet sites that are connected with fiber on overhead poles will be the first to go down in an earthquake or fire.
Underground fiber isn't 100% immune to damage either. I've seen insulation melt away on underground cabling too when a fire above it is hot enough.
 
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