Slowed in­ter­net hob­bled fire fight

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Fa­gan

Santa Clara County fire­fight­ers were dan­ger­ously hob­bled by poor in­ter­net ser­vice while they were help­ing bat­tle the mon­strous Men­do­cino Com­plex fire in July be­cause Ver­i­zon dras­ti­cally slowed down the speed of its wire­less data dur­ing the fire fight, the county’s fire chief con­tends in a fed­eral court fil­ing.

De­spite hav­ing paid for what it thought was an un­lim­ited data plan, the Santa Clara County Cen­tral Fire Pro­tec­tion Dis­trict saw its data flow “throt­tled” down to 1/200th of its usual speed as it fought the com­plex — now the big­gest wild­fire in state his­tory — be­cause Ver­i­zon of­fi­cials said it had ex­ceeded its plan limit, dis­trict Fire Chief Anthony Bow­den wrote. This pri­mar­ily ham­pered a spe­cial­ized ve­hi­cle the de­part­ment de­pends on to co­or­di­nate its machin­ery and staff in such emer­gen­cies, and Bow­den said that put his bat­tal­ions at risk.

With­out full-speed ser­vice for the high-tech com­mand and communications rig, which goes by the ar­cane

name of OES 5262, Bow­den wrote, “re­sources could be de­ployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of a fire, or fail to be de­ployed at all. Even small de­lays in re­sponse trans­late into dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, in­clud­ing loss of prop­erty, and, in some cases, loss of life.”

The Men­do­cino Com­plex, con­sist­ing of the Ranch and River fires, be­gan July 27, is still burn­ing and had by Tues­day even­ing charred 406,532 acres in Men­do­cino, Lake, Co­lusa and Glenn coun­ties.

Bow­den’s fil­ing in­di­cates that, af­ter ar­riv­ing at the Men­do­cino Com­plex as a mu­tual aid con­tin­gent help­ing thou­sands of other fire­fight­ers, one of his cap­tains wrote to Ver­i­zon on July 29 to com­plain that OES 5262’s main communications de­vice had been slowed so dras­ti­cally that “it has no mean­ing­ful func­tion­al­ity.” In a sub­se­quent, terse email that night to Ver­i­zon, de­part­ment IT Of­fi­cer Daniel Far­relly de­manded, “Re­move any data throt­tling on OES 5262 im­me­di­ately.”

Ver­i­zon re­sponded by sug­gest­ing the de­part­ment up­grade its ser­vice by more than dou­bling its bill to $99.99 a month — say­ing “they would only re­move throt­tling af­ter we con­tacted the De­part­ment that han­dles billing and switched to the new data plan,” Bow­den wrote.

Bow­den made his con­tention in an ad­den­dum sub­mit­ted Mon­day for a fed­eral law­suit filed by 21 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia seek­ing to over­turn the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­mis­sion’s re­peal of net neu­tral­ity rules. The re­peal, which went into ef­fect in June, can­cels reg­u­la­tions en­acted dur­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion that were meant to en­sure in­ter­net ser­vice providers treat all Web traf­fic equally.

Ver­i­zon re­sponded to Bow­den’s con­cerns by say­ing, “This sit­u­a­tion has noth­ing to do with net neu­tral­ity or the cur­rent pro­ceed­ing in court,” but that mis­takes were made in han­dling the is­sue dur­ing the fire fight.

Ver­i­zon spokes­woman Heidi Flato said in a state­ment that the Santa Clara County fire dis­trict’s plan did have un­lim­ited data, but that the speed was sup­posed to be re­duced once a cer­tain al­lot­ment was reached each month — and “we made a mis­take in how we com­mu­ni­cated” the terms of that plan to the de­part­ment.

As for the emer­gency sit­u­a­tion while bat­tling the Men­do­cino Com­plex, “We should have lifted the speed re­stric­tion when our cus­tomer reached out to us,” Flato wrote. “This was a cus­tomer sup­port mis­take.

“Re­gard­less of the plan emer­gency re­spon­ders choose, we have a prac­tice to re­move data speed re­stric­tions when con­tacted in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions,” Flato wrote. She added that Ver­i­zon is “re­view­ing the sit­u­a­tion and will fix any is­sues go­ing for­ward.”

The fire dis­trict did switch to a “new, more ex­pen­sive plan,” the chief wrote, and the throt­tling was lifted. It’s un­clear when this hap­pened. How­ever, he added that “in the in­terim, County Fire per­son­nel ... were forced to use other agen­cies’ In­ter­net Ser­vice Providers and their own per­sonal de­vices to pro­vide the nec­es­sary con­nec­tiv­ity and data trans­fer ca­pa­bil­ity re­quired by OES 5262.”

Ac­cord­ing to the court fil­ing, the fire dis­trict also grap­pled with Ver­i­zon over throt­tling of ser­vice to the com­mand ve­hi­cle while fight­ing fires in June and in De­cem­ber 2017.

Bow­den con­cluded his fil­ing by say­ing: “In light of our ex­pe­ri­ence, County Fire be­lieves it is likely that Ver­i­zon will con­tinue to use the ex­i­gent nature of pub­lic safety emer­gen­cies and cat­a­strophic events to co­erce pub­lic agen­cies into higher cost plans ul­ti­mately ... even if that means risk­ing harm to pub­lic safety dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

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