by Beth Hutchinson
For the Pathfinder
March 12, 1998
The Seeley Swan, always remote, was even more isolated Monday afternoon when a telephone outage cut off communications with the outside world.
There were inconveniences, but no crises during the near four hour lapse in phone and related electronic communication service which began shortly after 3 pm.
According to Blackfoot Telephone Communications (BTC) spokesperson Mary Kelly, "The service disruption began when a contractor working on North Reserve near the freeway cut through the fiber optics cable. The fact that it was a main trunk line made outages very widespread."
Customers living in a triangle ranging roughly from Philipsburg to Kalispell to Hot Springs and served by the Blackfoot and Century phone systems could make calls only within their three digit local area.
Temporary 911 access was quickly established. Notice of the disruption went out to law enforcement via the sheriff's department radio network, while fire fighters and emergency squad personnel received beeper alerts.
Cooperating with the Missoula Emergency Action Notification System, broadcast radio and television stations issued a series of "MEANS Alerts" advising residents throughout the impacted area of local numbers to call as emergency service bases connected with 911 were activated.
Seeley Lake residents were advised to call the fire house. Condon residents were to call Deputy Sheriff Bob Parcell's home number.
Not knowing how long it might take to restore the cable connection, 911 sent supervisor Debbie Ogden up from Missoula to staff the Seeley Lake base. Ogden, having extensive training and experience with 911 and emergency medical protocols, is frequently shifted to the Seeley Lake site to minimize the impact when the valley experiences communication disruptions.
No calls of any consequence were received in either Seeley Lake or Condon during this outage.
While some humorists were suggesting that local contractors may have severed the phone cable, it was actually an employee for Morrison Knudsen who did it. BTC manager Earl Owens said that a heavy equipment operator should have stopped digging as he approached the flourescent orange warning tape marking the site, "but he had to take one more shovelful".
It's expected to be a rather costly mistake since MK will be charged not only for temporary and permanent repairs to the cable, but also for lost revenues resulting from the disruption to long distance service. Ron Ogden, Forest Service law enforcement agent, said he had heard that charges of $20,000 to $50,000 were not unusual.
The Blackfoot Telephone Co-op currently has 600 miles of buried cable. This was only the third time in ten years that it has been severed.