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Firefighters on Mendocino, Calif., Complex Endangered by Verizon Move to Limit Data Service, Fire Chief Says

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.

(TNS) — 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.”

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @KevinChron


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