Verizon admits data throttling of firefighters battling 426,000-acre California wildfire

Firefighters including hand crews and engine crews watch for burning embers across control lines during burning operations along the Mendocino Complex fire’s northwest flank, in the area of Bloody Rock. (Mike McMillan/USFS via inciweb.gov)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Courthouse News) – Firefighters battling what is now the largest wildfire in recorded California history found themselves hamstrung by data throttling caused by human error on Verizon’s network, which Verizon publicly acknowledged Friday in a select committee hearing at the state capitol.

“We did not live up to our own standard. Our process failed first responders, and for that I am truly sorry,” said Rudy Reyes, Verizon vice president for public policy for the western United States. “We are making every effort to ensure it does not happen again.”

Verizon also released a public statement about the incident and steps it’s taking to ensure something like it does not happen again.

This was not the only instance first responders dealt with data throttling while attempting to contain a wildfire. Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden told legislators the first time he was aware of an issue with data throttling on Verizon’s network was during the Thomas Fire – the previous record-holder for largest fire in state history – in December 2017.

Bowden said in that instance, Verizon was able to lift the data cap within 20 minutes. Only a few months later, crews again encountered throttling while fighting the Pawnee Fire in Lake County. Again, Verizon was able to lift restrictions and get the data flowing for firefighters.

During the Mendocino Complex Fire this month, however, Verizon staff made a critical error and did not follow protocol, which resulted in crews having reduced data for more than 24 hours. Verizon was unable to uncap data and get priority access to the network for first responders.

Bowden said IT personnel had to create workarounds, including using hotspots on mobile devices and even overnight shipping technology from AT&T to create a redundant system.

Legislators heard the crews affected by the throttled data operate a mobile command unit that processes huge amounts of data, including live video, incident reports and operational plans to engage changing fire patterns. The mobile units allow emergency response teams to make near real-time decisions in the field.

Without access to wireless data, responders were limited in the decisions they could make.

“This was our mistake and it comes down to human interaction and intervention,” said Dave Dickey, vice president of sales for Verizon. “There should have been systemwide, automatic uncapping for first responders.”

Hickey told legislators that Verizon has made significant alterations to its network and developed a new plan specifically for first responders to ensure that data throttling does not happen again.

“We will be introducing a plan in about a week for first responders that will have no data cap and will provide priority access to Verizon’s network during emergency situations,” Hickey said.

He believes the new plan will eliminate the issues while also maintaining the cost balance.

Bowden testified that controlling costs for data and devices is difficult for emergency responders, as it is impossible to predict when and where a disaster will strike.

“There is a set of plans for agencies or consumers that can plan out their needs, and that is not the case for public safety,” Bowden explained. “We have times of downtime and we have times of huge spikes in data usage. We don’t have unlimited funds, so we need a plan that meets our needs without being so expensive that it costs hiring and retaining personnel.”

More than 400,000 mobile devices used by first responders in California run on Verizon’s network. Even during the height of the Mendocino Complex fire – and despite 38 cell towers damaged or destroyed – Verizon maintained 98.5 percent of its network in the region.

Reyes said that Verizon has mobile cell towers and sends vehicles to disaster areas with supplies, such as broadband wireless routers, phones and tablets to ensure that first responders are able to use technology to handle the situation.

The new plan is like “having a dedicated lane on the freeway, just for first responders,” Reyes said. A key element of the new plan is that it removes the human component from the decision-making, a step Verizon acknowledges it should have taken after the Thomas Fire to avoid what occurred in the Mendocino Complex Fire eight months later.

Verizon says it will continue to work with other service providers to ensure that when disaster strikes, emergency crews will have access to the data and network connectivity they need to handle the situation quickly and efficiently.

The Thomas Fire burned over five weeks in December 2017 and January 2018. It charred nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and caused $2.2 billion in damage.

Two wildfires comprise the Mendocino Complex Fire, the River Fire and the Ranch Fire. Together they have burned over 422,000 acres. The Ranch Fire has burned enough acres – 373,000 – to qualify on its own as the largest fire California has ever seen.

The causes of the Thomas Fire and the Mendocino Complex Fire are unknown and remain under investigation.