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Power outages cause concern

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Americans have become so dependent on instant communication that a power outage that disrupts cell and landline, email and Internet connections affects businesses that run a continuum from newspapers and government through Bandera's antique malls and bars. Along with that goes anxiety caused by frequent reports of terrorists' increasing ability to hack into America's power grids.
For the second time in the last two weeks, a massive power outage hit the Hill County. On Monday, Jan. 18, it was reported that cash was necessary to get a bite to eat in Bandera because the computers of businesses in general, and restaurants, in particular, were down.
According to the scanty information on the AT&T website, the telecommunications giant had been having "issues" since 5:34 am, CST. A note on the website asked: "Are you also affected? Leave a message in the comments." At 4:30 pm, there were over 25,000 comments.
The most reported problems included Internet, 54 percent; phone, 25 percent; and no network or reception, 20 percent. There was no information regarding the cause of the latest outage.
Additionally, according to rather sketchy reports, at approximately 4:15 pm Wednesday, Jan. 13, AT&T workers accidentally cut three fiber optic cable lines in Pipe Creek and Kerr County and either in Bulverde or Kendall County. Both main and backup lines were severed.
As Bandera County Sheriff Daniel "Dan" Butts succinctly reported to commissioners court on Thursday, Jan. 14, "It was a mess." Expressing concern that three cables had been severed simultaneously, he said, "It gave me pause." He said that AT&T contractors who cut the local line left the scene - ostensibly for assistance - but apparently never returned.
"San Antonio news said that service was back by 10:30 pm, but that report was premature," Butts said.
Although nothing more sinister than considerable incompetence had occurred, the result proved Draconian to the county's emergency telecommunications department.
"Bandera and Kerr counties' 9-1-1 calls were routed to Hondo," Butts told commissioners. "Hondo relayed 9-1-1 information to us and we had to relay it to Kerrville." He said all forms of communication were restored by 3:30 am, Thursday, Jan. 14.
In fact, in an interview, Emergency Management Coordinator Carey Reed said that emergency calls had been routed to Kendall County from 5 pm to 6 pm on Jan. 13. When an outage occurs in one of the Alamo Area Council of Governments seven-county network, 9-1-1 calls are routed to the closest county, which was Kendall.
"Later, however, AT&T switched the routing to Hondo," Reed explained. "Although Medina County is not in our AACOG network, their radio system is compatible with ours while Kendall County's is not." She added, "Kerrville also switched to Medina County, but there was a problem. They could speak to operators there, but couldn't hear them - also because of radio incompatibility. We had to relay messages from Hondo to Kerrville."
Not surprisingly, even the emergency repairs were fraught with dysfunction.
According to Butts, when an AT&T troubleshooter from San Antonio stopped in Helotes for some reason, he apparently locked his keys in his vehicle. The man then purportedly called another person to deliver a second set of keys, but the second set was an incorrect set of keys. The back and forth to San Antonio delayed repair of the line.
A clearly irritated Precinct 4 Commissioner Jordan "Jody" Rutherford berated the telecommunications giant for not having an emergency plan in place as required.
"AT&T didn't do it. It is unbelievable that this wasn't done," he said. "AT&T is required to furnish an emergency operations plan and they simply didn't do it." Rutherford also added, "The three separate cuts also bother me."
He explained that should this breakdown happen again and prevent residents from accessing the 9-1-1 emergency system, they should go to the nearest volunteer fire department, where firefighters would help them.
Reiterating Rutherford's advice, Reed said that during the outage, residents attempted to call 9-1-1, but couldn't. "Our advice is should this happen again, residents with emergencies are asked to report to the nearest volunteer fire department station where we will have a fireman available." County employees were deployed personally to the homes of firefighters to let them know they were needed at various stationhouses across the county.
Reed continued, "While this outage didn't affect everyone, some people reported their cell phones worked for a time, but then stopped. Those who can still use cell phones during an outage are advised to use them sparingly and then only for emergencies because you never know when they will quit."
Butts also noted that about a month ago, a fiber optic cable located between Boerne and San Antonio had also been severed. "There was supposed to be a satellite connection to Austin, but we lost that, too," he said.
"Well, we need to put pressure on local [AT&T] vendors because this is not good PR for this group," Rutherford said.
For his part, County Judge Richard Evans also had to be contacted personally about the outage because his telephones, of course, had ceased working.
"I want to commend everyone for working together during the communications outage," he said. "This could have been a lot worse had our county employees not been able to 'think outside of the box' for solutions to this emergency."