When an expected 1 million people converge on Oregon for next month’s solar eclipse — what many call the most dramatic celestial event viewable from Earth — they will be calling, texting, tweeting and posting selfies of their experience to Snapchat and Instagram.
Perhaps the only people not smiling at the thought of this solar celebration are Central Oregon’s emergency managers, who fear the prolific cell traffic will exceed the bandwidth local cell towers provide and people won’t be able to call 911 to report an emergency.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management is aware of the problem and has been in contact with cell service providers, but because no event of this magnitude has hit Oregon before, there is a lot of guessing involved.
“We are expecting more people in our state for a special event than potentially we have ever had,” said Cory Grogan, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management.
At about 10:20 a.m. Aug. 21, the moon will pass in front of the sun, and Central Oregon will be an optimal location to view the rare event. It is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people through very rural parts of Central Oregon, including many places that have little or no cell service. Emergency managers believe the demand on cell service could exceed what local cell towers are capable of providing. To ensure the most critical information will still get where it needs to be, managers are relying on technology of years past, such as landlines, pay phones and ham radios.
Sara Crosswhite, operations manager for Deschutes County 911, said dispatch centers can’t do anything to help the problem.
“We wouldn’t even know until we start getting those landline calls saying we can’t get through,” she said.
The burden falls on cell service providers, which have been trying to bolster their networks with portable cell towers.
“We are working with providers,” Grogan said. “It’s something we are aware of. They are taking steps to do the best they can.”
Crosswhite and Grogan said some providers have claimed they have extra capacity built in already that can be used during big events, and don’t expect to exceed capacity. But it’s impossible to determine how much additional capacity is enough before the event.
To try and ease the burden, the Office of Emergency Management is asking eclipse viewers to limit cellphone use. Further, Grogan said it’s important to call 911 only during an emergency, and not for general information.
“We’ve been talking to 911 folks,” he said. “One of the big things we are trying to get out is when to call 911 and when not to call 911.”
Grogan said during the Fourth of July, there is a saying thrown around 911 centers: Don’t call for fireworks; call if you’re on fire. A similar approach should be taken during the eclipse, he said.
From Aug. 16 to Aug 23, Oregon will have a “211” line set up where you can call in for general information on the eclipse.
As emergency managers fear modern technology might fail them, they are leaning on a more vintage way of getting out information. Crosswhite said the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office is working to compile a list of addresses for working pay phones across the county.
Additionally, dispatch centers around Central Oregon have been in contact with local ham radio communities to ensure the most crucial information will still get through.
Don Shurtleff is the information officer for Deschutes County Amateur Radio Emergency Service and the High Desert Amateur Radio Group. Amateur Radio Emergency Service is an organization that falls under the authority of Nathan Garibay, a sergeant with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Emergency Services Manager.
Under Garibay’s direction, Shurtleff and his staff will be at the joint-information center, where spokespeople from all emergency response agencies throughout the region will be posted during the eclipse.
Shurtleff’s top priority will be to ensure the sheriff’s office can communicate with the Office of Emergency Management in Salem. His secondary job will be to keep communication humming between Deschutes County and emergency managers in Crook and Jefferson counties. If needed, he said, his “hams” — as he calls them — can be sent out to various points on highways to ensure emergencies can still be reported.
Jefferson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Carman is organizing a similar network in Madras. He will man a communication center, while eight of his ham radio enthusiasts have volunteered to patrol a 1.5-mile radius from their house. Carman said they will move by foot, golf cart or any other mode rather than car, as he doesn’t want to put more cars on the street.
“They are going to be providing us real-time traffic reports,” he said, adding he can push that information out to the public via an opt-in text messaging alert.
Carman said he also knows hams will be traveling from other states, and will likely check in with local enthusiasts and should be available to help report emergencies if necessary.
“We’re going to have hams up and down the (Highway) 97 corridor,” he said.
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