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After Encountering Dangerously Slow Internet, Wildland Firefighters Join Net Neutrality Lawsuit

Smoke billows from the Mendocino Fire Complex north of Clear Lake, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2018.
Stuart Rankin
Smoke billows from the Mendocino Fire Complex north of Clear Lake, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2018.

Western firefighters were working the biggest wildfire in California’s history when they encountered a surprising obstacle: slow internet.

It happened in late July, as fire teams tackled a series of blazes collectively called the Mendocino Complex.

The Santa Clara County Fire Department had paid for an unlimited data plan to run computers and communications equipment on their travelling command vehicle. But while at the scene of the fires, their internet slowed to a crawl.

As Ars Technica reported, Verizon Wireless eventually restored the data, but only after sending the fire team through the billing department to pay double to upgrade their plan.

“It’s mind boggling that Verizon engaged in this profiteering when our communities were at risk -- when our firefighters were in danger,” says Frank Lima with the . “Reducing these data capabilities during an emergency situation to me is unconscionable.”

Lima, who is also a fire captain with Los Angeles City fire department, says fire teams rely on a variety of communications methods -- essentially, whatever works best given the terrain and the scenario.

“Sometimes our regular radios have a hard time working,” he says, “so an option is a text or just a phone call.”

The incident is now part of a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission, which repealed net neutrality rules that made it illegal to purposely slow down internet service, a practice called “throttling.”

"County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon," wrote Anthony Bowden, Santa Clara County Fire Chief, in court documents published by Ars Technica. "This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services."

Verizon claims the throttling was just a customer service mistake.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2020 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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