BANGOR, Maine — A construction crew drilling on French Street near FairPoint Communications’ downtown headquarters severed major fiber-optic cables Tuesday, cutting communications to several businesses, including Eastern Maine Medical Center.
“We cannot receive incoming calls from outside lines, and outgoing phone calls to many Bangor exchanges are not currently working,” Suzanne Spruce, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems’ community relations director, said in an e-mail just before noon Tuesday.
The hospital’s communications were restored late Tuesday afternoon. For others affected, the wait would be longer.
The phone system for the hospital, for EMHS in Brewer and off-site locations, including the health care mall on Union Street in Bangor, went down Tuesday morning. Telephone service at St. Joseph Hospital was not affected, a person who answered the phone there said.
EMMC was one of possibly hundreds of customers in the Bangor area that had insufficient or nonexistent communications after the cables were severed, FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins said Tuesday afternoon. The initial report came across his desk at 9:30 a.m.
“There were three cables severed … that carry a significant amount of traffic,” he said. “Both data and phone service” were cut.
Asked how the accident occurred, John Murphy, Bangor’s assistant city engineer, said the city is in the design phase of replacing the mid-1800s brick sewer now in place along French Street. As part of that process “we are currently doing ledge probes along the path of the sewer project,” he said.
One of those probes hit FairPoint’s cables, which weren’t supposed to be where they were, Murphy said.
Northern Blasting of Corinth is the subcontractor doing the work for the city.
“He may know something that we don’t,” Nevins said later, responding to Murphy’s statement about the location of the cables.
“That would be something we will take a look at afterward. We want to know what caused it, what went wrong and then try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “We will look at the maps, where the drill was and what happened.”
The severed lines consist of three cable bundles, two with 72 strands of fiber optics, and one with 48 strands, Nevins said. Each individual strand can handle a number of customers, he said.
“It’s a major cable that goes directly into our central office,” said Nevins, describing the central office as the “hub of the system.”
Whenever a call is made, it is directed to the central office, he said.
“That’s an absolutely vital point,” Nevins said. “This is a very significant cable.”
The second issue is that there is no redundancy or backup system, which means that to fix the problem each of the 192 or so fiber-optic cables in the main cable must be spliced with a new cable.
“It’s not a quick fix or an easy fix,” Nevins said.
The first priority was to get the hospital back on line as soon as possible, he said.
“The folks that I talked to said [it would be] a couple of hours” before the hospital is back on line, Nevins said at 2:30 p.m.
Between 40 and 50 personnel from FairPoint were working to fix the problem, he said.
The repair crew began making significant progress by about 4:30 p.m., when a cable serving several key institutions was back up and running.
“We have repaired the fiber that services [Eastern Maine Medical Center] and my understanding is that they are back up,” Nevins said in an update late Tuesday afternoon.
He said the cable that was repaired also serves several major institutions along Hogan Road, among them the Maine Veterans Home, the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the Bangor Mall area.
Though he did not have a timetable for getting telephone and Internet service restored to the rest of the affected areas, he said repair workers would remain at the site for as long as necessary.
“That’s our priority right now. We actually have lighting equipment there in case they have to work into the night,” he said.
Businesses all over the Bangor area were having communications problems Tuesday.
Personnel at Bangor Federal Credit Union on Hammond Street were hand-writing transactions Tuesday.
“They said they weren’t going to be able to post it immediately,” a customer making a deposit said. “They had to do everything by hand because a cable got cut. The line was really long.”
Rain, which filled the ditch where the cable was cut, hampered the early repair process, Nevins said. The water was pumped out of the ditch and the weather cleared up enough to allow crews to being splicing the line at around 2 p.m., he said.
Communication problems were not restricted to the Queen City. The Dexter School Department, which typically e-mails messages to the Bangor Daily News, was unable to do so because the school system’s e-mail was down, the superintendent’s secretary said.
Before its service was restored, EMMC was “down to a single incoming hardwired phone line into the main number, which may mean a busy signal for many who call that line,” Kelly Pearson, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “We are asking that people dial the main number in an emergency only, as the line should be prioritized for patient emergencies.”
Jill McDonald, vice president of communications for EMHS, said the hospital’s emergency preparedness team, which consisted of 12 to 15 people Tuesday, worked well together to identify and address the problem.
“We converted our transfer center to cell phones” and contracted other hospitals and health care partners to inform them of the communications problems, she said.
The hospital’s e-mail continued to work, which allowed personnel to “manage our communications through other means,” McDonald said.
The plan was for the State Street campus, including EMMC, to be fixed first, with off-site locations on Union Street and in Brewer to follow, she said.
Hospital personnel distributed cell phone numbers and encouraged patients and family members to use their own cell phones to keep in touch. All hospital services continued uninterrupted, Pearson said.
After the hospital phone lines were restored, FairPoint work crews planned to focus on splicing the remaining lines, Nevins said.
“We will be here until we get it fixed and everything is back up and running,” he said.
Bangor Daily News writer Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.