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I-Team: Local 911 connection failures concern local emergency operations managers now working to prevent future outages

It was a dramatic 911 call during Tropical Storm Hilary. An emergency dispatcher's “Hello” was answered by a caller's panic. A man shouting, "The house is getting flooded!” That call in Cathedral City August got through despite traditional 911 connections being down throughout the Coachella Valley during the height of the storm.

We all know to call 911 in an emergency, but a growing number of 911 emergency service outages are the most recent reminders that our high-tech critical lifeline to help is vulnerable. Another serious outage took down emergency lines valley-wide early last month, and a third outage impacted lines on Monday in Indio.

The News Channel 3 I-Team has spent months digging into the 911 outages that cut 911 connections around the Coachella Valley looking for answers, responses, and solutions.

The I-Team obtained emergency calls where people described chaos during Tropical Storm Hilary. One call came from a residential senior care home. The female caller said, “We have water up to the waist already and we have patients there!” 

Another caller said they were stranded in a car, surrounded by flood waters near a printing business off Vista Chino. The dispatcher asked, “Are you able to get to higher ground and leave the car behind if you need to?" The caller replied, "No. The water’s too swift. We’re floating in the car but we’re tied to a tree. And there’s three of us in the vehicle.”

Making matters worse in this natural disaster, valley-wide 911 lines were down except for the California Highway Patrol and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department dispatch centers. They were still receiving all calls for the valley and then directing them to the appropriate agency.

Cathedral City Police Chief George Crum said, "They were able to route our calls to our business lines. Although we lost 911 capability, we never lost our business lines.”

Crum says the outage was traced to a failed fiber optic cable line near the railroad tracks and Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs where a freight train had derailed in flood waters during the storm.

In the weeks after the storm, hard-hit Cathedral City residents took their many complaints to city hall.

Analisa Cayabyab of Horizon Independent Living told the council, "I called 911, no response! I called community care, no response! I called the fire department, no response!"

I-Team Investigator Jeff Stahl asked Cathedral City Police about that claim. They replied they had to prioritize an overwhelming number of calls by urgency during the storm, so help didn’t come immediately to all. 

Jeff asked, “Would a caller on the phone know that they were not getting directly through?” Chief Crum replied, “Most likely not. It would have been an uninterrupted service by simply having a transfer completed from Riverside Sheriff's or CHP to our business line directly.”

Crum says his dispatch staff delivered answering nearly 1,400 calls for service, 240% of normal, in 60 hours during the storm.

“They frankly pulled off a miracle," Crum said adding, "We did not lose any service to our residents or businesses during that 60-hour time.” 

"The question is what caused it what can we do better? We're working on that now.”

Indio Police Department spokesman Ben Guitron

Other cities were also down and had to adapt including the City of Indio.

Indio Police spokesman Ben Guitron said, "The question is what caused it what can we do better? We're working on that now.”

Indio police reported no significant issues in providing services during the storm, despite the 911 outage and call being rerouted. 

The early November 8th and 9th outage was different. It impacted all valley calls to 911 and there was no rerouting due to the severity of the lines.

Our reporting uncovered it wasn't an act of nature, but theft.

Jeff Stahl asked the Sheriff's Department who confirmed to the I-Team fiber optic cables were reported stolen from an area near the Whitewater Rest Area. 

There are no suspects. 

The department released the following statement:

"Firstly, we would like to acknowledge the significance of this incident as it is not a common occurrence. However, while the Riverside County Sheriff's Office took the report of the stolen fiber optic cables and we are committed to thoroughly investigating this matter to the best of our abilities, we are unable to comment on any future occurrences or provide specific information related to power outages. Our department primarily focuses on law enforcement matters while power outages fall under the domain of utility service providers." - Riverside County Sheriff's Department

Cathedral City Police say there was also a second fiber optic cable theft, at roughly the same time, just south of Desert Hot Springs. The two line cuts prevented the rerouting of calls to other agencies.

And Frontier, the company that owns the fiber optic lines that were cut last month, answered our questions about the recent outages in the Coachella Valley. A representative said “Cable theft/vandalism remains to be a major reason for outages across the state” that are “up 100% year over year.”

In Monday's outage, a Frontier Communications spokeswoman tells the I-Team, "A third party caused damage to our lines while doing road maintenance," adding that repairs were underway and callers could still dial 911 and reach dispatchers.

There are solutions in the works.

Cathedral City City Manager Charles McClendon said, "That's something I think as a region we need to work on is making sure that we're not reliant on one line that can be cut in the store or in a construction accident or anything that we have.”

In the November outage, the two local line cuts prevented the rerouting of calls to other agencies.

That’s why we shared backup emergency numbers with our viewers.

Shane Reichart with the Riverside County Office of Emergency Management said, “Everybody's familiar, ‘If I have an emergency, I call 911.’ But if 911 is knocked down, it's important for the residents to know what is the number that they can call to get their local police and fire dispatch office.”

Reichart suggests maintaining a home phone with a landline, writing down manual numbers to call for police and fire, and having an out-of-state contact everyone in your family knows to call in an emergency. Officials say part of you being prepared for a potential outage could also involve your cell phone. You take a business card and you tuck it between the phone and the case with important numbers on it– the actual numbers– not just the auto dials.

Cathedral City's City Manager tells News Channel 3 he answered questions for a grand jury investigating the recent outages. The Grand Jury's Office would not confirm the Grand Jury case to the I-Team. 

Outside of the ongoing investigations into what happened, are plans to avoid this again.

Brian Barkley, a Dispatch Supervisor for Cathedral City said, "There's always more that can be done. And that's what we look at after this happens as we sit down as supervisors with California officials to figure out what more we can do in the future to prevent this from happening."

Guitron said, “I think at the end of the day, we're concerned about all of that. We just want them to work. That’s the number one priority.” 

Frontier Communications is offering $5,000 dollar rewards for suspect information. "This is not just a problem for our business, it is a big problem for our customers who rely on our connectivity services," said Frontier External Communications V.P., Chrissy Murray.

The tip information must be provided to Frontier at 1-800-590-6605 and to the law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over the theft. The company is also installing alarms that alert when cables are cut and is also working with security for air tags and cameras on cables that are targeted by thieves repeatedly.

Jeff Stahl's I-Team investigation, 911 Outage airs Thursday at 6:00 pm on KESQ News Channel 3.

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Jeff Stahl

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