DAMMERON VALLEY – Imagine living in an established community and having a medical emergency – or having your house catch fire. You call 911 from your cell phone – but the call doesn’t go through.
This is the situation Dammeron Valley residents find themselves in.
Cell phone service in the small community is so bad that it is dangerous, according to a group of residents who are trying to resolve the problem.
Even though a cell tower built about nine years ago sits unused within sight of most Dammeron Valley homes, residents can’t count on reaching emergency services when they need help.
One retired man who lives in the Meadows area of Dammeron Valley experienced the problem first-hand, area resident and petition organizer Amanda Ballif said.
“He fell at his house,” she said. “He fell, had his cell phone on him and went to call for help.”
But no cell service was available and the man could not get help.
“He had to wait until his wife got home. And then she found him and he got the medical help he needed,” Ballif said.
“We don’t know who else has had to suffer through something like that.”
The strength of cell phone reception in Dammeron Valley varies from one day to the next; some residents can only make and receive calls and texts in certain areas of their property. Ballif cannot text an image unless she is standing at her front door.
Many residents, including Ballif, maintain a land line along with their cell phones for safety, but they are getting fed up, she said.
“It just seems ridiculous that we don’t have receivers on a tower that is in place, has all of the equipment – the ground equipment is all there … it’s ready to go,” Ballif said.
“You may call it a first-world problem but we live in the first world,” she said. “We’re not in the middle of nowhere.”
Ballif and others began collecting signatures on a petition in January and quickly found 300 residents to sign. Dammeron Valley has about 400 homes.
The petition mentions several points, including the proximity to state Route 18, “our dangerous and fatality-ridden highway,” which has areas near Dammeron Valley without any cell service.
“We strongly urge Verizon (to) fully implement the existing cell tower immediately for the use of its customers and the safety of residents and visitors in our community and along our highway,” the petition reads.
The petition has been sent to Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., along with a letter from the head of Dammeron Valley Fire and Rescue.
“Our fire department and firefighters rely on sufficient coverage to receive text messages and cellular calls in order to perform our duties,” Dammeron Valley Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin Dye wrote in the letter.
“When the text messages aren’t received, we are not able to make emergency situations in a timely matter. Once on scene, if we cannot place a phone call to our medical director for patient needs and orders, then we cannot do what is best for the patients,” Dye wrote.
The issue has been discussed at length on the Dammeron Valley Voice Facebook page.
“This community suffers through living in the digital age without adequate communication possibilities on cell phones … many homes have no coverage at all,” one post said. “More homes require residents to text and call from only certain locations in their homes and/or yards.”
The existing cell tower was built sometime before 2009, county planner Scott Messel said.
Messel said his understanding is that the tower was constructed by a company which builds towers where they believe they will be needed.
“And then (they) try to work with Verizon or some of these other groups to try to encourage them to come onto their tower,” Messel said. “I believe that this was one of those towers.”
The Dammeron Valley cell tower is the only unused tower in the unincorporated county. According to county code, any such “abandoned” tower should be torn down, but Messel said the county has no plans to enforce that code.
Some residents have been given cell phone boosters, but for the most part they don’t work, Ballif said, without homeowners themselves spending thousands of dollars on their own equipment.
When asked about the issue, a spokeswoman for Verizon said that the company takes the safety of its customers “very seriously” and is always working to identify locations for cell sites based on customer needs.
“Each cell site proposal is different and how we engineer our network to meet needs is dependent on many factors – proximity to other cell sites, topography, customer demand, local zoning requirements and more,” Meagan Dorsch said in an emailed response to questions.
Mountainous terrain poses its own set of challenges, Dorsch said. Cell phones are only wireless from the cell tower to the phone; calls still have to be carried via fiber optic cables or microwave from the cell site to an operating facility.
“Because of the terrain, this can be difficult to do,” she said.
When asked why Verizon can’t use the existing tower, Dorsch said she did not have enough information to provide an answer to that question.
Verizon customers can call 800-922-0204 to report any network issues, Dorsch said.
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