Admitting there were some issues with customer service over the last four days, Verizon says it will credit 8,000 customers who lost phone, Internet, and cable for the time they went without service because of Monday’s fire under Lawrence’s Central Bridge.
Verizon officials said about 1,000 customers remained without service yesterday. Those affected are connected to Verizon through copper wires that melted under the intense heat of the fire. Verizon must get into each of those homes to get service restored. They said they are going door to door in areas of North Andover and South Lawrence, the hardest hit by the outage.
They also said the numbers of those affected could climb for two reasons: Some have yet to report their service disruption and the possibility of lines that still may fail because of unseen damage.
Verizon’s vice president for government affairs, Joseph H. Zukowski, admitted there may have been a communication gap between people on the scene and people in the call centers answering calls from angry customers.
“Our goal was to fix it first,” he said. After the repairs are made and service is restored, he said, “we will do a post-mortem to see what we can learn and what we could have done better.”
He noted that between the repair centers and the business office, it is “always hard to get everybody on the same page. People could have been given better answers.”
The officials released the first outage disruption estimate Wednesday, saying it took time to determine how many people were affected and how long repairs would take because their technicians had to sort through the tens of thousands of scorched and melted copper wires and glass fibers to figure out exactly what was damaged, what was salvageable and how that may have affected thousands of customers in the Lawrence area.
“We needed to get in there and test every individual line,” said Zukowski.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight. A homeless person laid a mattress on top of the conduits and the bedding caught fire, destroying a major thoroughfare of PVC pipes containing thousands of customers’ connections to phone, cable, and Internet.
The extent of the telecommunications blackout was not immediately clear because only a few service workers could fit into the cramped space in order to inspect each of the 60 PVC conduits that run under the bridge. Each conduit can carry thousands of individual copper wires or hair-width fiber optic filaments.
Zukowski and Bill Wilson, an area manager for Verizon, said the 12,000 fiber optic filaments were the first priority, and those were repaired by Wednesday. The process of putting the fiber optic cables back together required using very expensive, highly advanced machinery to make a perfect, clean cut of each tiny glass fiber and then fusing it with another fiber optic line to make a perfect match to carry data cleanly.
Verizon service technicians are now working on the copper cables. Further complicating matters and contributing somewhat to the delay is that copper cables, which each contain 4,200 individual copper wires, are not easily available. They had to be shipped from New York and then pulled across the bridge, Wilson said. Eventually, they said, repairs must be made to cables in all 60 PVC conduits under the bridge.
Verizon’s cables carry signals for other telecommunications companies, such as Sprint and AT&T, to and from area cell phone towers, which explains why some people with those services lost their cell phone signals. That is another reason Verizon had a hard time estimating how many customers were affected, company officials said.
Customers in the area emailed The Eagle-Tribune this week to share their experiences with the outage. Many reported calling Verizon customer service and getting multiple, shifting time frames for restoration of service, with estimates moving from 9:30 a.m. Monday morning to today to Labor Day.
Dana Simpson, chief operating officer of Patriot Ambulance, said he was frustrated with the outage, but the “challenge we have is Verizon changes their time frame. First it’s noon, then 6, then later.” The disruption brought down a regional hospital-to-ambulance radio system called C-MED for nearly two days. Ambulances still could communicate via regional radio or cell phone during the outage.
Other customers said with the complexity of the task and the extent of the damage, they could be patient while the company made repairs.
Carrie Crouch, of North Andover, said she got her service back Wednesday afternoon and took issue with state Sen. Barry Finegold’s frustration, which he expressed in a letter yesterday to Verizon.
“If he understood the complexity of the situation, he would want to give a citation to the employees that worked and are working so hard around the clock to bring service back to all of us that were affected,” Crouch said. “I was affected throughout my home and my business. I’m not complaining. I want to thank all of the employees for the hard work and efforts on our behalf.”
But Lowell resident Michelle Duxbury said she called Verizon about her loss of service Tuesday evening, nearly two days after the fire, and Verizon customer service told her an outage was not reported in her area.
“After troubleshooting possible modem issues with a technician, I was told that I wasn’t receiving the signal from the central office,” she wrote in an email to the Tribune Wednesday. “Then I was told that an ‘outage had just been reported’ in my area and service would be restored within 24 to 48 hours.”
Several Verizon customers said they did not receive much information at all from Verizon. “Thank you for keeping us informed and for being the contact for Verizon customers in the area,” Marylou Salois, of North Andover, wrote.
Public safety officials said they too had some difficulty getting information. Lawrence fire Chief Jack Bergeron said his department did not have a list of emergency contact numbers for Verizon. The fire, which started near midnight Monday on a homeless man’s mattress that had been laid on top the rows of PVC conduits running under the Central Bridge, smoldered as Fire Department officials tried to reach Verizon to ask about a “high voltage” sign attached to the phone and Internet lines.
No electricity was going through any of those cables.