Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 29, 2012

Service outage forces police, firefighters to use cell phones

LAWRENCE, Mass. - Police and firefighters north of Boston resorted to back-up communications, some calling each other on personal cell phones, as a telephone and Internet outage stretched into a second day.

The problem that started Sunday night affected thousands of people in 40 cities and towns, according to the state Emergency Management Agency. By Tuesday, service was still out in 25 communities.

The outage affected home and business security systems. It downed a regional communications system for hospitals and ambulances, which instead coordinated with local radios and cell phones.

"Luckily it hasn't' affected our ability to have our crews respond," said Dana Sampson, chief operating officer of Patriot Ambulance. "We're not happy with the outage, but it is what it is."

Emergency calls to police and firefighters in North Andover automatically rang in neighboring Andover, where officials stayed in touch with their counterparts via a regional radio system.

"We're their back-up," said Andover Police Lt. James Hashem. "The contingency plan is when the phone lines are down there, they are automatically routed to us."

The outage was caused by a mattress fire, believed to have been set by a homeless person, beneath a bridge spanning the Merrimack River just after midnight Sunday. The fire burned through PVC pipes housing Verizon's fiber-optic cables. Firefighters encountered "high voltage" signs and waited to verify the lines were not electrified before dousing the flames.

The fire created a melted mess of thousands of fiber-optic lines running beneath the bridge, as well as their color-coded markers. Up to 30 electricians are working at a time, around the clock, to identify and repair each line.

"You are left there with basically pieces of spaghetti," said Ed Starr, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2321.

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