At a meeting in Libby Thursday, the area manager for Frontier Communications said that backup batteries that had failed in southeast Lincoln County will all be replaced by next Tuesday, but he could make no guarantees about avoiding future problems.
Bob Trombley, who supervises an area that stretches from Montana over Idaho and into Washington, told Public Service Commission Vice Chair Bob Lake — the commissioner for the Public Service Commission district that includes Lincoln County — and county officials that he needs to take their concerns to his superiors.
Trombley said that the batteries that failed in the area around Happys Inn — four separate locations had failures — had an expected service life of 10 years, but had failed tests in March after only seven or eight years. Frontier has since changed battery suppliers.
Frontier will now get their batteries from Enersys.
In order to change out the batteries, which are a different size than the previous batteries, the company also had to replace the battery racks, he said.
Trombley pointed to delays higher up in the Frontier corporate structure — from having the early replacement of the batteries approved to an unexplained delay of about a month between when they arrived in Washington to when they were sent to the regional warehouse in Idaho.
County Commissioner Mark Peck told Trombley that he was concerned that the delays and fact Trombley and local technicians had so little say in replacing such a critical item as the backup batteries boded poorly for the future.
Peck said he appreciated Trombley — who lives in Sandpoint — coming to Libby. However, he said he had no confidence that given the situation within Frontier that Trombley described, that all the involved parties wouldn’t find themselves coming back to this point in the future.
There was a lack of agreement on all the particulars of the timeline of events.
Happys Inn resident Mike Otte said that residents first started having problems with phone outages and began complaining to Frontier after a storm around Presidents Day, Feb. 19, of last year.
Trombley said that technicians reported the batteries in the four stations were failing after an annual test March 22.
To pass the test, the batteries need to hold a charge for an hour, he said.
The way the stations work, power that comes in from Flathead Electric Cooperative is converted from AC current to DC, Trombley said. The DC current goes to the batteries, and then the equipment that allows residents to have phone service run off of that DC current.
When the power goes out, the batteries provide backup power for up to four hours. If a power outage is expected to last longer, technicians take a generator out to the station to maintain service until power is restored.
Though the batteries failed the test in March, they were not completely dead, and Trombley said that it had taken some effort to have his superiors approve the money to replace the batteries.
In addition to the initial outage, Trombley said that one of the stations had some kind of surge, possibly related to a storm in July or August. When the technicians went to service it, they found the batteries had exploded and the equipment was damaged to the point it had to be replaced.
In addition to some disagreement over when Frontier was first aware they had an issue, Otte and other residents expressed frustration with Frontier’s customer service.
When reporting that there had been outages, customers were told that they should call in a ticket when their phone service went out.
Kirk Kraft, a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy and chief of the Fisher River Valley Fire/Rescue, said that when he made a call to customer service as the fire chief, he was told that a technician would not be able deal with the outage for up to five days.
Trombley said that the issue came back to the outage being identified as being a major service outage. He said that it sounded like the call center was treating the outage as a standard call ticket.
County Emergency Management Director Brent Teske told Trombley that he could mention to his superiors the possibility of Frontier being held liable if there is an emergency and the phone service is down. Teske noted a similar situation that power companies in California are facing.
“I would like to clarify that it goes far beyond these batteries,” Peck said. “I probably hear more complaints about Frontier and your service here than I do about anything else.”
Trombley said that he had taken notes on all the input given, and would relay the information to his superiors. He also encouraged the County and Public Service Commission to try to schedule a meeting with some of the higher ranking officials in the company, some of whom couldn’t attend Thursday because they were at meetings in California and Washington.
Lake asked if it would help to get the point across to Trombley’s superiors of the Public Service Commission sent a letter regarding the remaining concerns.
“It will open eyes, yes it will,” Trombley said.
Chad Campbell, the Western Montana field representative for Senator Jon Tester, was present by phone. He said that he would be relaying the information from the meeting to Tester’s Washington D.C. office.
Campbell said that he felt Tester would like to see something in writing regarding procedures that will ensure something like the battery outages do not happen again. He also said he believed that more questions need to be asked.