Cellular carriers in the city of Grand Forks, N.D., said their systems are faring well despite massive flooding that has forced most of the city’s 50,000 residents to leave their homes for higher and dryer ground.
Western Wireless Corp., operating a network under the Cellular One brand name, said one of its three cell sites in Grand Forks was in jeopardy when the flooding was at its worst. With help from the National Guard, Western Wireless was able to hold back the water at its cell site in East Grand Forks, Minn., with sand bags and a pump.
Shannon Norton, the Fargo, N.D.-based general manager of Western Wireless’ technical operations, said there was no damage to the site, and he doesn’t expect any further potential problems to arise. “It’s getting better,” he said.
Grand Forks’ other cellular operator, AirTouch Cellular, also is operational. LeAnn Talbot, vice president and general manager of AirTouch Cellular’s operations in the Midwest, said none of the company’s 25 cell sites in cities along the Red River have been damaged by water or floating debris, and the network has continued to operate at 100 percent since the beginning of the crisis.
Like Western Wireless, AirTouch enlisted help from the National Guard to sandbag its cell sites in Grand Forks and other towns along the Red River to protect them from the flood waters.
Talbot said there has been concern that debris and toppling towers could knock out some of the company’s cell sites. But even if a cell site had been damaged, Talbot said the built-in redundancy of the network would have filled any gaps. And back-up power generators at each site have kept the network operational despite widespread power outages throughout the city.
“We put an emphasis on back-up systems and the reliability of our system, and it’s paying off big-time now,” said Talbot.
There is still danger, however, that Grand Forks’ local landline switch will be affected by the flooding, and that could affect cellular service.
Jerry Brown of U S West Communications Inc., which operates Grand Forks’ local landline network, said the company will not be able to determine the extent of damage to the network until the water has receded. He said the company has not received very many trouble calls, but he attributed that to the fact that most of the city’s residents have been evacuated.
A crew of several workers has been living in U S West’s building in downtown Grand Forks trying to keep the local switching equipment running. The crew is running pumps to keep water out of the building, which is surrounded by four feet of water that is seeping through the walls into the basement.
In the event the local switch is damaged, the cellular carriers said that much of the cellular-to-local traffic would be disrupted. However, U S West remains optimistic that its switching equipment will not be damaged.
Meanwhile, both cellular carriers are bolstering their networks’ capacity with cell sites on wheels. The COWS are handling increased traffic generated by emergency workers who are depending on wireless communications. Western Wireless has deployed one COW that is operational with 18 channels, and it has two COWS that can be brought in quickly if needed, said Norton. Western Wireless also said some of its traffic is being diverted to its cell site in Crookston, Minn.
And both companies are donating phones and airtime to emergency crews who are helping evacuate the majority of the city’s residents and dealing with other emergencies such as a fire that destroyed 11 buildings in downtown Grand Forks.
Lyle V. Gallagher, director of communications for the State of North Dakota, said the city has been fortunate in this situation because North Dakota is one of the few states that has a statewide central dispatch system, which has been able to handle much of the emergency communications out of Grand Forks. The city’s police, fire and other emergency services are all part of the statewide system, which operates in the VHF frequency range and includes the state’s Department of Transportation radio system.
Gallagher said although some antennas were damaged by ice and rain, the system never failed.
“Public safety communications is continually on our public communications system and flood communications with the National Guard and Coast Guard are being handled on the VHF system,” said Gallagher. “Both of those systems have worked very well through the entire process.
“We have total interoperability between all public safety agencies, which is rare,” said Gallagher. “Our long-range planning to have interoperability really paid off in this flood situation.”
Gallagher said emergency workers have responded well to using the system because they already were accustomed to it.
“One thing about having an all public communications system is when people are used to working together on a day-to-day basis, when you get into a flood situation it makes it easier to communicate,” he explained. “What people have a problem with is they want to do what they did on a daily basis. They don’t trust something new. What we’ve done in our planning is have people working together on a daily basis, and it’s been phenomenal how people have been working together sharing resources, base stations, cellular phones. The National Guard has been phenomenal.”
The statewide dispatch system also is handling all of Grand Forks’ emergency 911 calls. All 911 calls in Grand Forks County, the city of Grand Forks, the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota have been transferred to the state back-up system since April 19th. And Gallagher said they are preparing for cities up the river from Grand Forks to begin transferring calls if those cities start flooding.
“Regular public safety things that go on every day are still going to happen,” Gallagher said. “People have heart attacks, children choke on things, babies have to be born.”
Gallagher said although the statewide radio system is able to handle most of the emergency traffic, hundreds of cellular phones also are being used in the area to coordinate rescue efforts.
AirTouch has donated phones and airtime to firefighters and police officers who are working to evacuate the city as well as health service workers who are monitoring the contamination of drinking water and Red Cross workers who are assisting the displaced citizens of Grand Forks. AirTouch also is providing free voice mail services to emergency workers.
Western Wireless has donated phones to the Red Cross, the National Guard and the Salvation Army.
Help from other sources has been pouring into the area as well. AT&T Wireless Services Inc. donated 65 cellular phones to Red Cross Workers and AirTouch employees are helping out, too. One area employee, trapped in her home by flood waters, spent time waiting for rescuers by programming the phones to be used by emergency personnel. The employee and the phones were rescued by boat.
AT&T also deployed its mobile Emergency Calling Center, which provides a satellite uplink service from the Grand Forks Air Force Base, where thousands of flood victims are staying. The 28-foot mobile home, which has been at the base since April 19, is equipped with 24 phones providing free local and long-distance calling for victims and volunteers.
Sarah Duisik of AT&T said the call center is averaging 10,000 calls a day, often with three people waiting to use each phone. The company has brought in extra equipment to meet the demands for phone service, and the number of phones at the center could reach 48, Duisik said.
The center, which responds to emergencies such as the Oklahoma City bombing, will remain at the base until residents are allowed to return to their homes, Duisik said.
Through it all, one motivation remains. “We’re just trying our best to serve the people in need,” said Norton.