Verizon cellular outage left Burlington first-responders in the dark

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) As crews continue to cleanup from last week's Halloween storm, Vermont officials continue looking into a massive Verizon cell phone outage that wiped out cell service to many in the Burlington area, including some first responders.

For first responders, having clear communication can mean the difference between life and death. "If it's a fire, or if it's a medical call, being able to communicate with each other so the best treatment can be given or the most effective means of extinguishing a fire -- everything with it is critical on communication," said Burlington Fire Deputy Chief Peter Brown.

During the storm, one of the Burlington Fire Department's lines of communication was completely cut off. A bridge washout took down a Verizon fiber line, knocking out service to 26 cell towers and leaving all Verizon customers in the dark for 3.5 hours.

Department of Public Service director Clay Purvis says Verizon did not notify the state's E-911 Board, which would then tell first responders across the state about the outage.

"It is of concern to us, I think. This is probably a national conversation that needs to occur about how resilient cell networks are in major storm incidents," Purvis said.

Purvis also says this raises questions about redundancies within cell companies' systems, and the state's lack of jurisdiction over their operations. He says many people, including first responders, rely on cell networks in emergency situations."It does raise concerns why a single fiber cut caused so many towers to go out. Our understanding was that there was a redundant circuit that also went out, so it could have been a perfect storm from that perspective," he said.

"Verizon managers were in communication with state and local public safety officials and agencies during the outage and upon restoration," Verizon officials said in a statement Friday. "We are refining our system to provide notice of outages to Vermont state, local and public safety agencies."

Verizon however will not confirm whether they alerted the E-911 board of the outage.

For first responders, the company is just one of three communication channels. Burlington fire uses AT&T and over-the-air radios to field calls during emergencies just in case events like this happen.

"It's all about redundancy, planning ahead -- trying to plan ahead -- trying to be able to continue operations without a hiccup when these events occur," Brown said.

Vermont's E-911 Board is in the process of rewriting the rules for communications companies, clarifying the threshold for when they need to notify the state of an outage.