As firefighters fought to extinguish the largest wildfire California’s history, they also had to wage a battle against something entirely unexpected — their internet service provider.
Santa Clara County Fire Department officials claim Verizon Wireless intentionally slowed their mobile internet speeds last month as they fought the fast-moving Mendocino Complex Fire in the northern part of the state. In an email submitted as part of a declaration filed on August 20, fire chief Anthony Bowden says the department noticed the data throttling when equipment in a command vehicle slowed to the rate of a “dial-up modem from 1995,” even though their internet plan included unlimited data.
As noted by Ars Technica, Bowden submitted the filing his declaration as an addendum to a brief filed as a part of a lawsuit by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission, as a part of their lawsuit to reverse the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality. The repeal took place weeks before the fire began.
The slower speeds caused delays in emails being sent and received and created difficulties when sending documents containing critical information, according to the declaration. The delayed response times could cause firefighters to be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of the fire, or not be sent out at all, Bowden said.
“Even small delays in response translate into devastating effects, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life,” he explained in the filing, published by NPR. “The Internet has become an essential tool in providing fire and emergency response.”
The department’s command vehicle, referred to as OES 5262, uses a Verizon sim card that sent and received up to 10 gigabytes of data each day.
“In the midst of our response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, County Fire discovered the data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds,” Bowden detailed in the declaration. “These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively.”
In a series of email exchanges included in the filing, the department is seen desperately trying to resolve the issue with Verizon representatives, only to be offered a resolution in the form of a more expensive data plan that was twice the cost of the original.
“Please work with us,” a Santa Clara fire official wrote in an email to Verizon on July 30. “All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.”
In response, the representative for the company suggested a 20-gigabyte plan for $99 a month, which would also charge the department $8 for every gigabyte they go over.
“To get the plan changed immediately, I would suggest calling in the plan change to our customer service team,” the representative added. “Let me know if you have any questions – I’ll be available by phone for at least the next hour or so.”
The email exchange can be viewed here.
Firefighters used their own personal devices to make up for the slower speeds during the fire, Bowden said.
“This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” he continued. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services. “
In a statement provided to PEOPLE by a spokesperson, Verizon called the ordeal a “mistake” in how they handled the terms of the department’s plan.
“Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost,” the statement reads. “Under this plan, users get an unlimited amount of data but speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle. Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations.”
The statement continues: “We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.”
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The Santa Clara County Fire Department did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment regarding Verizon’s statement. The Mendocino Complex Fire has so far burned through 415,006 acres and has left one firefighter dead.
As noted by Ars Technica, Bowden submitted the filing as a part of a lawsuit by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission, as a part of their lawsuit to reverse the Federal Trade Commission’s repeal of net neutrality. The repeal took place weeks before the fire began.
According to KTLA, the department still uses Verizon for their internet, but has also taken on a second provider to guard against future problems.