The 911 on cell coverage and potential communication breakdown during the eclipse
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Great American Eclipse will be an unforgettable experience for many—something to phone home about, maybe. Just don’t do it in Jackson if you can help it.
Civic leaders in Jackson and Teton County have been preparing for the day, the hour, the two and a half minutes that will bring throngs of visitors to the community. Preparation began more than a year ago and has culminated now in a webpage, a dedicated hire (Kathryn Brackenridge), 42 planning meetings, 18 public outreach events, three full-scale exercises, and a certain degree of looming uncertainty as to whether August 21 will make or break someone’s day.
Jackson Hole is a resort community. It’s what we do, and we do it well. The strain on the infrastructure—from police calls to overflowing trash receptacles—is par for the course in a service-oriented valley that sees millions of visitors every year. Still, emergency management types get paid to worry, to play out “what if” scenarios until response is routine and uncertainty is managed out of the equation.
Town information officer Carl Pelletier admitted, “While we can’t control celestial events, we can plan for them.” And plan, the town and county have. Practically ad nauseam.
Rich Ochs (Teton County Emergency Management coordinator)
“Approximately 75 to 100 percent of my time lately has been spent on the eclipse,” Ochs said.
Ochs is overseeing and coordinating a multi-agency effort of preparedness that encompasses local law enforcement, Fire/EMS, as well as state and federal agencies. It’s all hands on deck and Ochs is the ship’s captain.
Todd Smith (Chief of Police)
“We’re going to divide the city into five zones and staff each at appropriate levels. This should alleviate concerns about getting around,” Smith said. “I don’t think we are going to solve the traffic problem. We are going to have one.”
Smith plans to add more than a dozen out-of-town cops to the payroll for a few days during the eclipse.
Mike Moyer (Chief of Fire Department)
“We will be expanding our staffing primarily at Stations 1 (Jackson) and 6 Moose-Wilson Road). Our 65 volunteers will also be at the ready, some will be positioned at the stations.”
A second ambulance will also be stationed on the West Bank and a roving wildland fire engine will be out and about, ready for initial attack on any wildfires that may start.
Steve Ashworth (Parks & Rec director)
“We won’t be doing any routine mowing of fields or parks on August 21. We will be concentrating primarily on trash pickup and restroom cleaning,” Ashworth said, adding that the department has also secured some 62 port-a-potties.
Ashworth will reassign some administrative staff to local parks, particularly in the evening, to make sure everything is running smoothly. The Rec Center will be staffed normally and it will be business as usual there.
Larry Pardee (Public Works director)
“Trash is the enemy,” Pardee said.
Subcontractors hired by the town to empty garbage cans will likely not be able to do so during the day due to heavy traffic volume. Pardee said that means he and his staff will pickup what they can until the hired guns get to town in the evening.
Cell phones may not work on August 21
While various departments and agencies believe they are close to ready, one concern crops up again and again: communications. It’s no secret cell service in the valley suffers immensely during summer months when Jackson Hole is teeming with smartphone-toting tourists. In fact, representatives from Verizon and AT&T have been warning local government for years that this area is woefully underserved by cell towers.
The more people, the more demand on the towers and they simply cannot keep up with the load. The result is dropped calls and laggy Internet. It affects numerous aspects of communication within the region including first responders’ ability to talk with each other. Police, Fire/EMS, and critical care personnel have alternate methods of communication like WyoLink, for example, that don’t rely on cellular service but often it is the most effective way to communicate across mountainous terrain.
Pelletier said there is no way around anticipated service disruption—it’s not a matter of if, but when and how bad cell service will be compromised in the days and hours leading up to and immediately following the eclipse.
To that effect, town officials have issued a helpful tipsheet in the hopes that through voluntary, proactive efforts all cellular users in the valley will get through the eclipse without a “blackout.”
For the most part, emergency responders are confident they will get the community through the event without major problems but the “perfect storm” scenario (a simultaneous multi-event nightmare like a vehicle accident on Highway 22, combined with a grass fire in Grand Teton NP, and a heart attack victim at the rodeo) could push things to the limit.
Concerning phone use, the town of Jackson suggests:
911: Know when it is appropriate to call 9-1-1 (true emergencies) and have the non-emergency phone number (307-733-2331 for Town of Jackson/Teton County and 307-739-3300 for Grand Teton National Park/Bridger-Teton National Forest) into your phone ahead of time.
Cellular Service: With the increased number of visitors, local public safety officials anticipate cellular service may become overwhelmed (primarily Monday, August 21) or have limited access during the impact days. Consider these ideas to assist with communications during this time:
- Develop a communication plan with family and friends if you lose or have limited service.
- If you only have a mobile phone at home find out which of your neighbors have a land-line number in case you need to call 911 for an emergency.
- You can text to 9-1-1 in Jackson, WY if you are unable to make a voice phone call.