Verizon officials apologized for a “process failure” that caused a Santa Clara County fire department unit’s broadband data speeds to be throttled significantly multiple times this summer while the unit tried to coordinate resources from throughout the state to fight the worst wildfire in California history—an action that was characterized as "ridiculous" by a county official.

“This is ridiculous,” Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said yesterday during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “What happened here was clearly unacceptable and has a lot of people rightfully concerned.”

In an addendum to a brief filed Monday as part of litigation supporting net-neutrality policies, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden outlined his department’s unsuccessful efforts to convince Verizon representatives to restore normal data speeds to OES Incident Support Unit 5262 (OES 5262) in response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is now the largest in California history.

OES 5262 is a command-and-control resource that has the “primary function to track, organize and prioritize” response resources during an incident using specialized software and Google Sheets by leveraging leverages cloud computing via broadband Internet connectivity.

However, these functions typically require 5-10 GB of data usage per day, so OES 5262 quickly used the 25 GB monthly allotment of broadband data capacity under its Verizon data plan. Per the terms of the Verizon contract, connectivity continued to be maintained after OES 5262 reached the 25 GB threshold, but the data rates were throttled to 1/200 of the normal broadband-throughput rate, which “severely interfered” with the unit’s ability to be effective, according to Bowden.

“This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” according to Bowden’s declaration. “Verizon imposed these limitations, despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

Indeed, the legal brief addendum includes an e-mail exchange between Santa Clara County officials and a Verizon representative lasting more than a month. Williams said the fire department upgraded its data plan with Verizon once during this period but was again throttled under the new plan upon reaching the data-use threshold.

“[Santa Clara County] moved to the $39 [$39.99-per-month data plan], and they got throttled again,” Williams said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “At that point, they were told, ‘Go call customer service, and you can do the $99 [$99.99-per-month data plan].’”

Contrary to multiple media reports, Santa Clara County did not subscribe to the proposed $99.99-per-month plan, which would have covered the first 20 GB of data use and then charged an additional $8 per GB used, without be subject to data throttling, Williams said.

“The way [fire-department officials] dealt with the situation was actually that they switched to different device—another SIM, another line basically—and ran it off of there,” Williams said. “That’s how they ended up resolving the situation for the actual incident.

“The whole thing is crazy.”

Verizon officials have said that Santa Clara County fire department’s data speeds should not have been throttled after the emergency-response use of the broadband service was revealed, but the matter was not “escalated” properly through the carrier’s processes.

“While we have been delivering new and increased capabilities to this [public-safety] segment over the past six months, the incident that’s hit the news in California is something that we wanted to address head on,” Mike Maiorana, Verizon’s senior vice president-public sector, said yesterday during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “While we delivered the network assets, the capacity, the coverage and the support on the ground, we had an incident where, unfortunately, our operational processes weren’t followed as needed, and we didn’t serve a specific user well.

“Verizon takes that very personally. We certainly apologize and live up to our mistakes.”

Tami Erwin, executive vice president of operation for Verizon Wireless, echoed this sentiment.

“We had a process failure,” Erwin said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We had a customer who, in the terms of their agreement, had reached the 25 gigs of data. When they called in, while the information was factually correct—because the customer had exceeded the 25 gig—the failure was that we didn’t escalate through the process that is in place … to enable the customer to have access to the network.

“And that process failure we have to own, and I have to own, as somebody who has accountability for operations.”