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When Vandals Strike Infrastructure, Hams Provide Communications Support

04/15/2009

In the early morning, just after midnight on April 9, someone climbed down four manholes in the San Jose, California area and cut underground fiber optic cables. The sabotage led to widespread disruption of phone service -- including tens of thousands of land lines, an undetermined number of cell phones, Internet access and 911 emergency service -- in southern Santa Clara County, as well as in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. San Jose is the county seat of Santa Clara County. With the infrastructure disabled, local Emergency Management officials called on ham radio operators in their communities to provide back-up communications. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Santa Clara County called a local state of emergency, "but worst-case scenarios were successfully avoided through use of ham radios, door-to-door checks and extra-vigilant patrols."

In Santa Cruz County, just over the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Jose, Santa Cruz County District Emergency Coordinator Cap Pennell, KE6AFE, was awoken that Thursday morning just after 5 AM by uniformed police at his door. Sent by Dominican Hospital President Nanette Mickiewicz, the police officers escorted Pennell to the hospital for a brief on this situation: The fiber optic lines that had been cut in San Jose had affected the Santa Cruz hospital's communications infrastructure, cutting off communications from the hospital to the outside world. Santa Cruz is located on the northern edge of the Monterey Bay, about 72 miles south of San Francisco.

"While I was meeting with hospital department heads, Bob Wolbert, K6XX, had started our ARES Resource Net on the W6WLS/W6MOW linked repeaters," Pennell told the ARRL. "During the briefing, the hospital determined to implement HICS/SEMS for this emergency. There hadn't been telephones or Internet anywhere since about 2:30 AM. The hospital's phone system did work, but only within the hospital. Their internal computer local area network wasn't working either, so they were instantly on a 'paper system.'"

By 6:15, Pennell said they had established tactical radio links on the K6BJ/KI6EH linked repeaters between the Dominican Hospital Emergency Operations Center in Santa Cruz and the Watsonville Community Hospital emergency room; Watsonville is about 15 miles south of Santa Cruz via the Pacific Coast Highway. "We established HEARNET 155.385 simplex between both hospital ERs and County 911; HEARNET is the Hospital Emergency Administrative Radio Network. Once HEARNET (ER staff) and K6BJ repeater (hams) were staffed and operating at both hospitals, I left the hospital to become our initial ham operator at the County Emergency Operations Center and operated as ARES/ACS shift supervisor from there for the rest of the day," Pennell reported.

Throughout the day, Pennell said that hams -- including some in Monterey County who had been working telephones -- helped dispatch ambulances, conferred with the Poison Center on a children's poisoning case, ordered replacement blood supplies for two hospitals from San Jose Red Cross, relayed a complex major "whole hospital" day's food order to the supplier out of county, tracked down various doctors for emergency consultations and shared status updates from our area. "We did all this while in unity with the County government, public safety agencies and California Emergency Management Agency's Coastal Region," he said. "Greg Smith of Cal-EMA spent the day in the Santa Cruz EOC with us." All service was restored by 12:15 AM on Friday, April 10.

NETCOM, the dispatch center for most police and fire agencies in Santa Cruz County, was able to receive 911 calls placed from land lines, but could not receive calls placed from cell phones, said Santa Cruz County Senior Dispatcher Stephanie Zube. "Because the only phone number many land line phone owners could call was 911", she said the center received "countless calls" regarding the blackout: "At least several people attempted to call 911 before driving themselves to the emergency room. A lady in Gilroy fled her home when a robber broke in, and couldn't call 911 before fleeing to a nearby firehouse."

Vandalism Takes Out System

San Jose and San Carlos police are joined in their investigation of the cut fiber optic cables -- now considered by authorities to be a coordinated act of sabotage -- by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office and the FBI. The investigation also includes members of AT&T's security force, a handful of trained investigators working for the company. Authorities said on April 10 that evidence collection was complete, but would not elaborate on what exactly they are examining or whether new security measures are in place to prevent similar acts of destruction.

San Jose police reported receiving about 10 tips concerning the sabotage; San Carlos police told the San Jose Mercury News that they are examining video surveillance of a major intersection near one of the four locations where AT&T's underground fiber-optic cables were sliced early Thursday morning.

On April 11, AT&T issued a $100,000 reward for information, but bumped up the reward to $250,000 the next day when it discovered that the damage was more serious than originally thought. According to the Daily Tech, some banks in the area were forced to temporarily close, while all service was disabled and hand-written receipts were offered to customers. Many businesses also were forced to either accept cash or close for a few hours, since credit card and ATM transactions were unavailable.

Authorities say the communications sabotage occurred in two separate incidents, one at 1:30 AM in south San Jose and the other two hours later in San Carlos. Several companies, such as Verizon, "piggy back" on the AT&T-owned cables. AT&T spokesman John Britton told the Mercury News that it appears vandals opened a manhole and climbed down at least 8 feet to cut four or five fiber optic cables along Monterey Road just north of the Blossom Hill Road exit. The second vandalism was along Old County Road near Bing Street in San Carlos. San Jose police spokesman Sergeant Ronnie Lopez said the manhole covers are heavy and would take quite an effort to lift, perhaps even requiring a tool. Investigators do not have a suspect yet, he said, but have learned "to expect the unexpected. We have some obvious clues and can assume some things," but a motive remains elusive.

Community Leaders Praise Hams

Gilroy, the southernmost city in Santa Clara County, was also affected. City Administrator/Director of Emergency Services Thomas J. Haglund expressed his thanks to the Amateur Radio operators who assisted with communications support, saying, "This particular emergency situation underscores that our reliance on technology should be balanced with maintaining the very types of capabilities that you provided to us. Communication is an obvious key to adequately responding to any emergency and the efforts of the Mutual Aid Communicators and the Gilroy Police VIP's provided the necessary communication and public visibility in this instance and demonstrated just how important your training and skill is to our community. Thank you very much for your dedication and expertise."

Gilroy Police Chief Denise Turner echoed Haglund's comments: "We truly appreciated all of your help during this challenging event! Each of you played a key role in a successful operation. I feel better knowing we have dedicated volunteers like you that will come to our aid in time of need! Thank you!" -- Some information provided by The San Jose Mercury News and The Daily Tech



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