911, phone lines, internet were down for a part of Arizona; a man died because of it, officials say

When you dial 911, you expect to hear "911. What’s your emergency?"

However, for about 100,000 people living in St. Johns, Eagar, Springerville, Pinetop, Lakeside and Concho, that wasn't the case for a weekend.

A telecommunications outage over the weekend left swaths of rural northeastern Arizona without internet or phone connections, knocking out credit card processors and, in some cases, easy access to emergency services.

The troubles began around 3 p.m. on June 11, when someone shot a crucial fiber line in three places across 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) near Woodruff in Navajo County. The outage knocked out internet and cellphones that use Frontier’s infrastructure across much of the area. Service returned intermittently until being fully restored on Monday, officials said.

Lines were down for 48 hours.

The Navajo County Sheriff’s Office used two dedicated cellphones to field 911 and non-emergency calls, along with radio links to other 911 centers, said Chief Deputy Brian Swanty. That restricted dispatchers to one 911 call at a time and cut off services like call recording and geolocating the caller, he said.

St. Johns Police Chief Lance Spivey says there was a death because of it.

"A 74-year-old male who was a hospice patient, sick, was found in his home laying on his floor. The person that found him, went over to check on him to make sure he was OK. Had to run and locate the ambulance to come help this person who was still alive. Unfortunately, he passed away while en route to the hospital," Spivey said.

For about 48 hours, people in these rural Arizona communities did not have consistent access to 911.

Little girl had freak accident

Spivey says there was another incident where a young girl was injured during a freak accident and barely survived. 

As for the freak accident, it’s a situation Breonna Ellington never imagined. Her 5-year-old daughter got hurt playing with her sister, and she couldn’t call 911, or anyone for that matter.

"She like slipped off her bed and cut herself really badly. She came out screaming," Ellington said.

Ellington and her husband drove to White Mountain Regional Medical Center, but they weren’t equipped to handle a pediatric injury with such extensive damage.

"Immediately they looked at her wounds, and they were like, ‘we can’t do anything with that type of wound.’ They tried to get ahold of Summit and Show Low, and Phoenix Children's down in the Valley and they weren’t able to call anybody, because they couldn’t call anybody," Ellington explained.

The Ellington family went in search of gas to fill up their tank before heading three hours to Phoenix Children's Hospital, which was another difficult situation because ATMs were down, they couldn’t fill their tank with a debit or credit card.

Eight hours later, their youngest was finally getting treated by a doctor. She's going to be OK.

"I didn’t even think that she wasn’t going to make it," Ellington said. "I just think that I also couldn’t have thought like that, or I would have had a complete meltdown."

Other problems

On the first day of the outage, Navajo County dispatchers fielded at least 60 calls from people seeking welfare checks when they couldn’t get ahold of their loved ones, Sheriff David Clouse said.

Crews running the Coronado Generating Station struggled to reach on-call experts when the coal fire power plant experienced a "moderately common equipment failure" on Saturday, said Erica Roelfs, a spokeswoman for Salt River Project, which operates the plant.

"We were able to resolve the issue relatively quickly, however the equipment repair process would have happened faster and smoother if we had ease of communication," Roelfs said.

Frontier communications company receives backlash

This is not the first time the Frontier Communication lines have been down.

"The same scenario happened roughly three years ago. A stretch of fiber was damaged by somebody and phones and everything went down for four or five days. Imagine if you’re in your home, and you can’t call the cops, Spivey said.

Navajo County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the criminal activity that caused the line to go down, but the St. Johns PD still holds Frontier responsible for a lack of maintaining the line and a slow response to getting it up and running again.

"They knew that if this stretch of line was ever damaged again the same thing would happen," Spivey said. "They knew. They don’t care. They look at it as dollar signs and not people's lives and that’s just tragic."

Spivey said St. Johns and other rural communities have struggled for years with prolonged communication failures that he blames on Frontier. He has asked state regulators at the Arizona Corporation Commission to begin proceedings that could lead to sanctions against the company. 

The company agreed in March to take a variety of steps to improve reliability after the commission determined 911 services were out in Frontier territory for a cumulative 66 hours during the year ending in April 2021.

"It’s just tragic that Frontier will put dollar signs before people’s lives and are jeopardizing police police, fire and EMS personnel, ambulance personnel, paramedics," Spivey said. "We take an oath and we live by that oath to protect our communities, and when our partner has a key component and doesn’t keep up, we lose sleep at night."

Chrissy Murray, a spokeswoman for Frontier, said its customers lost 911 access for only 1 hour and 3 minutes on Sunday while crews were repairing the broken line. But she said other service providers, such as cellphone companies, had longer outages.

"We have long been committed to providing this critical infrastructure to St. Johns," Murray said. She said the company has "offered to discuss network redundancy" with regulators and the industry to improve reliability.

The company is offering a $10,000 reward for help convicting the person who shot the lines, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.