COYOTE CANYON, CA — So expected was the call from the California Department of Forestry on Thursday afternoon requesting assistance to establish a cell phone system for firefighters battling an out-of-control brushfire in a remote part of the state near the San Diego-Riverside counties line, that Verizon Wireless personnel didn't even have to think twice. They sprang into action without a moment's hesitation and they knew exactly what to do.
With the Coyote Canyon fire raging uncontrolled and threatening scores of homes and businesses, members of the all-volunteer Significant Event Response Team (SERT), fired up a Cell on Wheels (COW) van, loaded up on spare phones and parts, grabbed as many schematic drawings and maps of the area as they could, and headed east on the two-and-one-half hour drive in temperatures sometimes topping 100 degrees. Their goal: somehow find a cell link with the 40-foot tall COW antennae powered by its diesel generator.
Volunteer members of SERT, which is based at the wireless firm's Irvine, California regional headquarters, who worked on this emergency were Design Manager Tim O'Malley; Base-line Technician Henry DeCoteau, Cell Technician Jim Kay, and Principal Member Tech Staff John Toner.
Finally, with dusk beginning to descend over the firefighters' remote base camp at Warner Springs deep in the San Jacinto Mountain Range near the county line shared by San Diego and Riverside, the Verizon Wireless team worked late into the night on Friday, and again on Saturday, to ensure the communications link was working.
Upon arrival, the team scouted the terrain and found a ridge above the base camp that provided a fairly clear shot to a cell site scores of miles away within Riverside County. With the generator pouring forth maximum power, suddenly the cell signal went from "no service" to nearly full strength. Verizon Wireless communications was up and running.
The whoops and hollers of those trying to make outbound calls, and the sudden ringing and buzzing of cell phones receiving inbound calls, was drowned out by the congratulatory backslapping of Verizon Wireless personnel by those who suddenly had cellular service and could make and receive calls.
But the kudos were not just from firefighters and their commanders, but also from the handful of Warner Springs residents who had stayed behind to protect their properties, those who had elected to remain despite the danger of serious injury or death and despite orders to evacuate earlier.
With cell service suddenly restored, worried spouses and children, parents, girlfriends and boyfriends, and friends and colleagues, were hearing the reassuring words of their loved ones, the first words of comfort since the last of the evacuations had taken place hours before. It was a joyous, raucous celebration at least for Verizon Wireless customers and for those using the borrowed Verizon Wireless handsets brought to the camp by the SERT team. Not so happy were customers of other mobile carriers who still had no access to the outside world.
"When asked by other residents and even some firefighters who had non-Verizon Wireless handsets with them if we could do anything to provide service for them, we could only suggest they borrow a Verizon Wireless phone if they wanted to call out," said O'Malley. "We were the only wireless company on site, and although we did feel badly that the non-Verizon Wireless users could not use our technology to make calls, we felt great about successfully creating the link. It was quite satisfying and we did lend phones to those customers of other carriers so that they, too, could reach their families."
As of last Monday morning, there were some 2,400 firefighting personnel on the fire lines, along with four fixed-wing aircraft and 17 fire-fighting helicopters, figures that continued to grow throughout the week. Acreage burned surpassed 18,000 acres as of Tuesday, with containment predicted some time next week.
Only some outbuildings, a few of which housed research labs operated by several universities in the area, were destroyed, but more than 130 structures, including family homes and working ranch and farm buildings, were saved.
When it became apparent that the number of phones first distributed by Verizon Wireless' John Toner on Thursday would not be enough, more were delivered to the base camp.
"While it is an absolute tragedy whenever a fire of this scope rages out of control, it's satisfying to know that we can make a contribution by setting up communications links that can mean the difference between a structure surviving or not, or even between life and death," said O'Malley. "All of our volunteers are to be commended."
About Verizon WirelessVerizon Wireless is the nation's leading provider of wireless communications. The company has the largest nationwide wireless voice and data network and 33.3 million customers. With its West Area headquarters in Irvine, California, the Bedminster, New Jersey-based company is a joint venture of Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) and Vodafone (NYSE and LSE: VOD). Further information is available on the Internet at www.verizonwireless.com.####