Nor’easter Raises Concerns About Cellular Service During Storms

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Police, Fire And Harbormaster News , Orleans news , Senior issues , Eversource , Verizon

Utility trucks file out of Skaket Corners following an October nor'easter that knocked out power for almost all of Orleans. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS -- For Geof Deering and his staff at the Orleans Fire Department, the Oct. 27 nor'easter, which left almost all of Orleans without power, made for an intense but memorable workweek.

Over the course of three days, local officials and Eversource staff worked to restore power to almost the entire town. On Oct. 27, about 91 percent of Orleans residents and businesses were left without power due to the nor'easter. By late afternoon on Oct. 29, power had returned for almost all residents and businesses.

"It was pretty epic," Deering told the select board on Nov. 3. "Most of us in our memories haven't seen a storm of that scale in a very long time."

The town's fire chief described the ability of police, fire and utility crews to restore power throughout the community as "pretty close to a miracle." But the storm's aftermath exposed some issues that need addressing in the event of another widespread power outage, he said.

One issue in particular was the loss of cellular service experienced by many in town and across the Cape. Select board member Mefford Runyon said it was unusual for him to lose cellular service during a storm, and that he quickly came to realize the impacts.

"That really did change the experience," he said. "I'm just wondering if there are any ways we can anticipate that happening again in the future, and if we can do anything about it."

"It struck me as odd that I could barely get a text message out, just a short message," echoed select board member Kevin Galligan.

Deering and the select board expressed particular concern for senior citizens, many of whom depend on landline or cellular service to activate their medical alerts in the event of an emergency.

"Those medical alarms dial out for help," Deering said. "Many of those people live alone, and those lines are down."

Andrea Reed of the select board cited a particular case involving a 95-year-old resident whose alert system was deactivated during the storm. She suggested that neighborhood watch groups be established on a "block by block" basis, where residents can check in on elderly residents nearby who might be in need of help.

Deering said he has had discussions with officials at Verizon about what can be done to expedite service in the event of future storms and outages. He said while the nor'easter impacted cellular service in "pockets" of Orleans, the town fared better than other towns across the Cape. In Sandwich and Barnstable, for example, loss of cellular service was widespread, he said.

A Verizon spokesperson said in an email that the company continues to invest in new cell sites on the Cape. During the nor'easter, backup generators were brought in to support locations that lost power. Those sites ended up carrying 150 percent of normal traffic load in the region. That resulted in "temporary congestion" in areas, the spokesperson said.

Deering said the fire and police departments work closely with the town's council on aging to specifically identify residents who might be in need of assistance, but added that residents can play a part as well in ensuring that their elderly neighbors are taken care of.

"Ultimately at the end of the day, there is value in checking in on your neighbor, checking in on your family and friends, that is hard to duplicate from a public safety standpoint," he said. "We need those people out there just checking on their neighbors, and if there's a problem to call us."

Galligan asked that Deering continue to work with Verizon and Eversource toward any improvements that can be made to better protect residents from interrupted internet and cellular service.

"The lessons learned through this thing are going to be ginormous," he said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com