cellphones wildfires

Portable Cell Phone Towers Aid Wildland Firefighters

How many people (and fire personnel) take cell phones for granted?

Anytime someone wants to place a call, all they have to do is whip out their cell phone and they can connect to people half a world away.

But what if cell phones suddenly become unusable? What if, at a moment of crisis such as during a wildfire, that technological marvel fails to work? Unfortunately, this is a scenario which is repeated all too often when wildfires disrupt power to cell towers or destroy them outright. This is also a scenario which companies such as Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and AT&T have considered and prepared for.

The answer? Portable cell towers that can be up and operational in a matter of minutes and work for hours without the need for external power!

Welcome to the Barnyard

Not being satisfied with a one-size-fits-all mentality, telecommunications companies have come up with a variety of useful systems to keep cell phone service working, although the names make the units sound more like livestock than cutting-edge cell equipment.

First, there are the COLTs (Cell On Light Truck), a truck-based cell tower that can be easily driven from place to place as the need arises.

Next, there are the COWs (Cell On Wheels), which are portable cell towers on a trailer that can be set up in less than an hour and operate on their own generator for up to eight hours before needing to be refuelled.

There are also CROWs (Cellular Repeater on Wheels), which, as the name implies, is a trailer with a cellular repeater attached.

And finally, for those situations where additional electrical power may be needed for emergency responders and to keep temporary cell towers running, telecommunications companies have developed GOATs (Generator On A Trailer).

AT&T has also deployed a suitcase-sized cell site called the ARMZ, which stands for AT&T Remote Mobility Zone, to areas where incident commanders need cell phone service in a smaller package.

To better prepare for emergencies, telecommunications companies spread their “livestock” out over their service areas so that they can more quickly respond to wildfire incidents or other natural disasters in a timely manner.

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In the Line of Fire

Portable cell towers have been of vital importance on a number of wildfires, quietly working in the background, providing solid communications to civilians as they try to flee or get help, and to first responders as they try to get to them and fight the blazes.

In October 2007, Southern California was beset by 30 major wildfires which burned nearly a million acres, killing 17 people and doing $2.4 billion of damage. In the midst of all this destruction, there was a report from one of the rural parts of San Diego County where a man and his family were trapped by a fire at the gates into his ranch. They couldn’t get out, but because of a COW that Verizon Wireless had deployed a few days before, they were able to reach one of the police chiefs and one of the fire chiefs who arrived at the scene, pulled an axe out of their vehicle, went to the chain on the gate, hacked it down, with intense flames just 10-15 yards behind the family’s car, and together these two men saved the family.

AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery Operations team provided a COLT to support the Waldo Canyon Fire Command Center in June of 2012 as firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders sought to coordinate their efforts battling the 18,247-acre fire, which blazed through the San Isabel National Forest near Colorado Springs, Colorado, and would go on to rack up $453.7 million in damage, destroying 346 homes.

Verizon Wireless deployed COLTs to Oak Creek Canyon north of Arizona’s Slide Rock State Park in May of 2014 to provide cell phone service for fire crews during the 21,227-acre Slide Fire.

In June 2017, Verizon Wireless deployed a COW at Utah’s 71,673-acre Brian Head Fire to allow incident commanders based near Panguitch to stay in touch with over 1,000 firefighting personnel grappling with the blaze.

Also in June 2017, Verizon Wireless brought satellite communications service to a remote part of the Sequoia National Forest where the 16,031-acre Schaeffer Fire was burning, 17 miles north of Kernville in Kern County. A Satellite Pico cell on a Trailer (SPOT), which included a 30-foot antenna mast with a satellite dish on top of the trailer, kept incident commanders in touch at all times, while a portable mini-satellite dish with a 4G LTE eFemto cell was used by first responders for additional wireless service.

In October 2017, AT&T allocated COLTs and COWs to replace cell service lost in the Santa Rosa, California, area when the 36,807-acre Tubbs Fire destroyed or disabled 86 cell phone sites around the city. According to a report from the California Public Utilities Commission on the situation, 99% of the cell service was restored within three days of the start of the blaze, and three sites were still supported by GOATs till the end of the month, a testament to the speed with which cell service could be restored using portable equipment.

T-Mobile brought in their own COLTs and COW’s to assist first responders on 2018’s Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California, as well as on Northern California’s 153,336-acre Camp Fire, the largest and deadliest in California history, which killed 86 people and did upwards of $10 billion in damage before it was finally snuffed.

And although COLTs and COWs do yeoman work around the perimeter of wildfires, Verizon Wireless has a few additional tricks up its sleeve to help fire crews. During the massive Station Fire in 2009, the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County’s history, Verizon Wireless provided CAL FIRE with mobile wireless hotspots that connected up to eight 4G WiFi devices at once. Five trucks were rigged up with a WiFi hotspot so that firefighters could set up their laptops and get screenshots of maps, shots of the fire, and wind reports, all in real time, then relay them back to the incident command staff to update fire officials and crew chiefs as the incident unfolded.

GOATs to the Rescue

In an era when power utilities are prone to cut off power during wind events rather than risk having their equipment spark wildfires, redundancy is important for telecommunications. Cell towers have a lot of redundancy designed into them, with built-in generators that will run on gas for up to eight hours, as well as batteries that will last for another 6-8 hours. But when they run out, a GOAT can be brought in to keep the tower going, something which can be done for COLTs and COWs as well when their onboard fuel supply begins to run out.

GOATs also support base camp operations, providing charging stations at the Red Cross evacuation centers to charge cell phone batteries, while the COLTS and COWS hook up laptops with wireless connectivity.

So as long as there is a need for cell service in areas impacted by wildfires, companies like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless will be available to keep communications open when civilians and first responders need it most.