Bowie officials lauded city efforts to restore normalcy in the wake of a severe thunderstorm June 29 that left 85 percent of the city without electricity, but some council members questioned the strength of communications equipment.
“I still never felt we got all the calls we would have if everyone had their phones working,” Una Cooper, a city spokeswoman, said referring to a lack of calls from residents because of technical issues at city hall.
A new report detailing the effects of the derecho formally was presented by city staff to the city council on Sept. 4. The report broadly covers the city’s actions, such as opening cooling centers and removing debris, from June 29 to July 5. The report also includes more than a dozen recommendations ranging from streamlining the launch procedures for the emergency operations center to developing different means of communication in the event of difficulties.
“I do worry about the communication,” said Councilman Jimmy Marcos (Dist. 1). “Is there any ways to improve?”
For about a week after the storm, communications remained spotty at city hall, Cooper said.
With the city’s communication backbone unreliable, officials pushed out information to residents using personal cell phones or through council members’ email lists, officials said.
“The very low-tech message boards, the ones that are not electronic, were very effective,” said Cooper refering to bulletin boards.
Councilman Isaac Trouth (Dist.4) questioned whether the city simply could avoid such trouble in the future by going to a new carrier.
But switching carriers could be expensive and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, City Manager David Deutsch said.
“It’s not easy to do,” he said. “Phone systems are not only complicated but extremely expensive.”
Reaching city staff was somewhat problematic in the days after the storm. Not all calls made to city hall went through, Cooper said. The city’s phones are managed by Paetech, but are carried on Verizon lines, Cooper said. The city’s Nextel cell phones also were affected, with the phones having little to no service in the days after the storm — a problem the city was told was because of a loss of cell towers for the wireless carrier. The two service issues combined meant calls made to the city Emergency Operations Center never reached anyone, and the reliability of the city’s Internet also was sporadic during the initial recovery phase after the storm, Cooper said.
Bowie was told the lack of service was because of a breakdown in part of the communication network owned by Verizon in northern Virginia, Deutsch said.
“We’re calling them on an 800 number, and they’re telling us that it’s not us, it’s Verizon,” he said.
Going forward, the city will be reviewing the steps and expenses that switching carriers would bring, and a report would be shared with the council, Deutsch said.
Also, as part of the review of storm efforts, representatives from utility company Baltimore Gas and Electric will be meeting with the council Tuesday to discuss its efforts to restore power after the storm.
“We look forward to that,” Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said. “There will be questions for them.”