Poor cell phone service worries first responders

Posted Dec. 15, 2010, at 9:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:24 a.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — A pregnant woman was involved in a car accident on Interstate 95 on Dec. 1 in a snowstorm so bad that Fire Chief Les Brown, who was manning a town ambulance that night, told other emergency responders to turn back.

The woman appeared to be OK, but Brown wanted to double-check her condition with a doctor and also get a doctor’s permission to take her to a Bangor hospital. To ensure his patient the privacy she is legally entitled to, Brown used his cellular telephone to call the doctor rather than his ambulance’s radio.

He couldn’t get a cellular signal.

Had the woman been injured, or a doctor’s consultation immediately required, the lack of a cell phone connection could have been critical, Brown said Wednesday.

“There are times when it is really important for us,” Brown said. “If we got onto the interstate and broke down [in the bad weather], then it would be really important, but there are places where we do not get a cellular signal or a radio signal, either.”

Brown and other northern Penobscot County emergency responders say that while cellular coverage of the region has improved over the past five years or so, and companies like U.S. Cellular are working with them to make more improvements, cell phone coverage has been a chronic problem in the area for many years — and a “perfect storm” of bad circumstances could prove life-threatening to somebody.

“Just about everywhere you go around here, you don’t have cell phone coverage,” said Lynn Powers, Mattawamkeag’s deputy fire chief. “They really don’t have enough towers up here.”

“I feel most for the cops up here,” Powers added. “They have no cell service most of the time, and if they get out on foot, their portable radios don’t get [a signal] out to the towers. They are really out here all alone.”

Kelly Cioe, public relations counsel for U.S. Cellular, said she could not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about cellular telephone coverage in northern Penobscot County.

State police Trooper Lawrence Anderson, who patrols northern Penobscot County, said he bought a booster antenna for his cellular telephone, and it helped, but boosters typically work only when they get a signal in the first place, Brown said, not when no signal can be found.

About 80 emergency responders — typically local police, fire and ambulance services — communicate via radio through the Penobscot Regional Communications Center in Bangor, which has about 20 channels for emergency traffic, one official there said Wednesday.

That system is the county’s primary emergency communications service, but it is not perfect. The radio net has several dead zones, especially in rural areas such as Mattawamkeag and Medway, Powers and Brown said.

PRCC provides exceptional service, often making cellular telephone calls for responders, but when their call volumes suddenly increase, as during bad weather, the calls get backed up and dispatchers are less able to assist clients quickly, Brown said.

Brown said he hopes to meet with regional cellular service providers and state and federal legislators to see if they can help improve cell phone coverage in northern Maine.

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