Editorial: Harden cell service for emergencies like Sandy
Add cellphone service to the list of critical infrastructure that needs hardening in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
During public emergencies, this vital means of communication has an unfortunate pattern of failing just when we need it most.
That was the story in the metropolitan region on 9/11. That was the case during the great Northeastern power blackout of 2003. And that's what happened on parts of Long Island when Sandy struck.
EDITORIALS: Shaped by Sandy
Especially hard-hit was Long Beach, which quickly lost its landline service after Sandy came ashore.As the storm intensified, city officials used their cellphones to speak with first responders and other key personnel. Then cellphone service went down.
The city was left with no electricity, no water and sewer service, and virtually no phone service.
Officials couldn't communicate with police or fire or public works employees. They couldn't tell residents what they needed to know to stay safe. Stranded residents couldn't call them.
A woman whose mother had died of natural causes wound up walking to City Hall to report her death.
A resident jogged to the Fire Department to report a fire.
A family with a baby had to wade through chest-high water to seek shelter from a neighbor when they discovered they couldn't call police.
On Long Island and in parts of New York City, residents without cell service had no way to report flooding or fires or looting. They couldn't contact family members or their offices or attend to countless other daily responsibilities that were less dire but still important.
Altogether on the Eastern Seaboard, nearly one in four cellphone customers lost service after Sandy hit. Some were without it for days.
Cell towers that remained in operation were overused, and reception was spotty. Searching for service caused batteries to run down faster at a time when recharging them was difficult.
These problems are unacceptable.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants the Federal Communications Commission, the mobile-phone industry and first-responder groups to sit down and work out a plan to improve the performance of cellphone service in a public emergency.
Although many telecom companies had drawn up extreme-weather plans before the arrival of Sandy, the storm's ferocity surprised almost everyone. So it's time for a rewrite.
What can be done? For starters:
--Backup generators could be placed higher on cellphone towers.
--Tower bases could be waterproofed in vulnerable areas.
--The FCC could consider requiring companies to open service to all customers during a state of emergency.
"FCC should bring in everyone who has skin in the game," Schumer said. "It's life and death."
The agency needs to move swiftly. Cellphones are a lifeline in the midst of disaster.
We need a plan that works before the next cataclysm strikes.