Total Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

Eclipse visitors could overload cell towers

The coming eclipse in August is expected to bring massive crowds to eastern Idaho, where there will be prime opportunities to see the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event.

Estimates of the number of visitors that could arrive in the region range up to half a million, though it’s hard to guess exactly how many it could be.

One potential major headache will be cellular

coverage. With an unprecedented number of visitors, many of them likely to be posting photos and videos on social media, there are major concerns that communication could become a problem.

On July 4, 2013, with an estimated 50,000 attending the Melaleuca Freedom Celebration, there were major disruptions to cell coverage after a drowning in the Snake River. With the possibility that 10 times that many people could be in the region, emergency responders are strapping down and preparing for likely cellphone outages.

“You’re looking at something really big, so cell towers are going to be jammed,” said Andi Anderson, manager of the Bonneville County Dispatch Center.

Emergency managers have been working to develop plans to deal with outages, as well as the host of other situations that could arise with such a large influx of visitors.

“There are several planning meetings that have taken place,” said Kellie Farrar, assistant to the Bonneville County Office of Emergency Management. “There will be an incident management team during the eclipse that will be overseeing emergency response.”

Chief Dave Hanneman said emergency managers are now working on contingency planning for a possible outage. Emergency responders have radios that aren’t tied to cell coverage, and they are even working to use ham radios as a backup.

“For emergency responders, we are building a communication plan for our region,” Hanneman said. “We are aware of the potential for cellphone coverage going out. What we’ve been told is especially during the totality part, if people try video streaming it will probably shut the system down.”

Hanneman said multi-county exercises are planned for next month, where emergency responders will test their ability to handle a variety of scenarios, including situations where communication is impaired.

If there’s an emergency situation and cell coverage is out, residents have other options.

“If you have a landline that could be used, that’s a potential (way to dial 911),” Hanneman said. “But one of the things we have in Bonneville County is you can use your phone to text 911.”

Text messages sometimes work when calls won’t go through, he said.

Representatives of AT&T said they’re working on putting more infrastructure in place ahead of the eclipse, including a mobile cell tower referred to as a Cell on Wheels, COW for short.

Hanneman said as emergency responders develop plans, more information will be released to the public.

“As we get closer, we are going to have much more information for the public both through our media efforts and through other channels,” Hanneman said.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.

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Source: Solar Eclipse 2017

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