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Manpower is the only backup system for communications on the North Shore

When people along the North Shore last week found themselves without the usual communications tools, they began asking, “What happened and where’s the back-up?” Residents along the North Shore had to revert to a pre-Internet and telephone world after a damaged fiber-optic line in Duluth shut down communications.

After nearly two weeks there is still no clear answer on how the interruption happened. Qwest Communications officials first thought the line was fried by a burst steam pipe underneath a Duluth street. However, the manager of the Duluth Steam Cooperative Association said that didn't happen.

"In this day and age it probably should not even happen," said Jim Wiinanen, Cook County's emergency management director. He added that for about a decade officials have wanted to bring broadband service to most of the county.

As for a back-up system, the only one the county has for a high level emergency, or Class 4 Condition, is what was used – volunteers stationed at fire halls with radios. Wiinanen said this has been the plan ever since a satellite back-up system went off-line.

“Satellite phones were a part of the Condition 4 plan,” he said, “but the satellite was aging and stopped functioning. A replacement was sent up but exploded upon launch.” Since then there has been no back-up except for volunteer manpower. Wiinanen added that the satellite phones only worked about 30 percent of the time due to weather conditions.

Emergency and law enforcement planners are re-working the 911 response plan. Currently county 911 calls go through a trunk line down to Duluth and then are sent back to the Law Enforcement Center’s dispatch area.

According to Wiinanen, this emergency shows a glaring weakness in what the county has for cell phone, internet and land line phones. He said he thought the interruption should prompt the powers that be, whether it’s the legislature or local governments, to stay on track to improve county communications.

Check out a related commentary by Jim Boyd that appeared on Minnesota Public Radio.