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Northern Arizona communities left without 911 call service after fiber line damaged

Law enforcement leaders said it's not the first time they've dealt with outages related to Frontier Communications, and are wanting to see something done.

PHOENIX — Saturday marked the start of days without 911 call service for Navajo and Apache counties in Arizona.

The two rural counties in the north-eastern part of the state were left without service after the Navajo County sheriff tells 12 News someone shot a fiber line in a remote part of the county.

Fiber line shot

On Saturday, Navajo County Sheriff David Clouse said Frontier Communications found a fiber line outside of Woodruff, Ariz. It appeared to have been shot by a shotgun, and the line was damaged further down as well.

“They can see the shotgun pattern on it,” Clouse said.

Frontier Communications is the utility service provider, think phones and internet, for parts of rural areas of Arizona. 

“The bad part is is when that fiber optic line gets damaged it not only interrupts public safety lines but interrupted communities in Apache County and communities in Navajo County,” Clouse said.

The Navajo County Sheriff’s Office is investigating who shot the line and whether it was done maliciously or not.

So far, Clouse said, no suspects have been identified. And police are asking for tips during the investigation.

Not the first time

Even in more rural parts of Arizona, no 911 calls for help are noticed.

“No calls are coming in, all of the sudden it’s eerily quiet,” St. Johns Police Chief Lance Spivey said.

It’s something Spivey said he’s seen several times over his nearly five years as chief.

“It’s tragic that people have to go through this,” Spivey said.

Spivey and Clouse both said the issues started on Saturday. With 911 calls, calls between people, the internet and other services were affected. 

Spivey said things appeared to be back up and running as of Monday afternoon. 

Frontier Communications disputes that the 911 service was out for the weekend, claiming it was only out for an hour on Sunday. 

While things were down, Spivey said public safety in St. Johns had to take radios home in hopes of hearing any calls that did come in to respond to them.

In a letter to the Arizona Corporation Commission, Spivey said that a man died on the way to the hospital after people couldn’t call 911.

“Had this been working, people wouldn’t have gone through what they did to get treatment at a hospital. Somebody may have lived,” Spivey said.

Spivey also mentioned a young girl who was injured in her home in St. Johns in the letter. 

Breonna Ellington said her 5-year-old daughter, Kenna, cut herself badly after slipping while playing with her older sister Sunday afternoon. 

"Of course, every parent's worst sound is like the screen that comes with it," Ellington said.

Ellington said her husband is a first responder, and they knew the phones were down so took Kenna to White Mountain Regional Medical Center in Springerville, Ariz. for care. That's about a 30-minute drive. 

However, Ellington said they were worried the hospital couldn't take the severity of the injury Kenna had. 

"They did everything they could. They tried emailing, they tried calling, they tried all of these things to try to get a hold of the bigger hospital, the one that's in Show Low, tried to get a hold of them, couldn't get through to them, couldn't get through to Phoenix Children's to even ask if like, 'Hey, can we send these people to you?'," Ellington said. 

Eventually, Ellington said Kenna's bleeding slowed down, and the hospital was able to get a hold of Phoenix Children's. 

The family then drove down to the Valley to have Kenna cared for. Ellington said she's back to her playful 5-year-old self. 

Not having calls coming in and having residents unable to place calls in emergency situations isn’t new.

“Frontier knew that this critical point would cripple two counties and all first responders or could potentially cause harm to people. And they've done nothing about it except upgrading the wiring or the fiber. There is no redundancy,” Spivey said.

Ellington said the situation is frustrating and scary. 

"I just hope that it gets fixed. And this never has to be a parent's story of, 'How am I going to get a hold of somebody to help me with my child? Like that should not be a concern on top of your child's safety, on top of your child's health, like, (that) should not be a concern for a parent to be like, 'How am I supposed to call the hospital?'," Ellington said. 

Ordered to make changes

Earlier this year, the Arizona Corporation Commission found Frontier Communications had significant outages lasting hours to days across the parts of the state they serve.

The commission decided frontier communications needed to make plans to improve the system to stop the outages.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Corporation Commission told 12 News that they’re investigating this latest outage, but can’t comment any further on if Frontier Communications is adhering to the directive to improve their system.

“Frontier always has ‘plan a’, ‘plan a’ fails about every six months,” Clouse said. “And then we're just left scrambling for three days. And I don't think they understand the impact that it has on small towns like this.”

The law enforcement leaders now want action.

“We would like to see that they actually provide what we're paying for, in the fact that they have they have more than just one wire,” Clouse said.

As the sheriff and chief want to make sure they can help their community.

“They shouldn’t have to worry about is 911 or the phone lines working,” Spivey said.

In response to 12 News' questions about the outage, and past outages, Frontier Communications said in an email: 

"Frontier is offering up to $10K for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) who vandalized Frontier-owned communication lines in Navajo County, Arizona that led to an outage in the community last weekend. We have long been committed to providing this critical infrastructure to St. John. We have offered to discuss the network redundancy with the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Arizona Department of Administration, and the industry in order to work toward a solution that ensures reliability when the technology has been damaged due to causes such as weather or vandalism, as in this instance."

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