Broadband internet has significantly improved emergency communications, but it’s not available everywhere! Keith Davis, whose family has lived in rural Eastern Washington for three generations, shares how lack of broadband access during the Oregon fire in August 2023 made the dangerous situation worse. Jump down to read his story!

The impact of broadband

  • Mobile alerts & connection during emergencies (the new standard phone service)
  • Faster info sharing for first responders (providing faster reaction times)
  • Real-time data sharing (offering better decisions & coordination)
  • Public updates & info sharing via social media (fostering 2-way communication)
  • Improved info access for emergency personnel (delivering better situational awareness)
  • Next-Gen 911 with text & video calls (covering for situations when voice calls can’t be made)

Keith’s Story

I am Keith, a fairly new resident to the elk area. I moved to Elk in spring of 2021, however I grew up in the Williams Valley area west of Deer Park. I left to serve in the US army then moved back after my 5-year contract. My family can trace its lineage to 3 generations of farmers in Williams Valley and several generations in the Palouse region and Steptoe Butte in Eastern Washington. I am intimately familiar with the struggles and rewards in living in the rural Inland northwest and how it affects our personal lives, the lives of our businesses, and our livelihood, as I continue my family’s farming tradition.

I want to describe for you my story and the story of my community during the Oregon Wildfire in northern Spokane County. To help you understand the depth of importance of connectivity, I need to help provide some background information on living in this rural area. In my area, there is a severe lack of internet and cell phone connectivity, contrary to the FCC maps.

In my childhood and young adult hood, internet and phone service were provided by landlines and hard telephone lines. I was able to observe how lack of maintenance of that infrastructure and the expansion of cell phone coverage caused many households to stop paying for landline phone service. Some members of my family still maintain a landline; however, they are definitely the minority. They often have just as many issues with their landline as I have with my cell phone. The issues with landlines and the increased cost of landlines means many people only have cell phones, myself included.

However, cell phone coverage is spotty, at best, in our area and the area of deer park. It is common for me to not be able to make or receive calls as I do not have cell phone coverage. Many of my neighbors have the same problem. In fact, on my farm, the connections are so spotty, that my wife and I rely on two-way radios to communicate around the farm for safety as cell phones do not work. The spotty connections, lack of landlines, and lack of cell phone number registries at the county level led to a significant example of how vulnerable these changes have made our rural communities.

During the first day, the fire started around 4pm and was moving to the east. After darkness fell, the fire shifted south due to changes in the weather. When this shift happened, a new swath of people were in the path of the fire. Most of these folks could not be notified of the pending danger. With no home phone, there was no switchboard to ring the homes to alert them to evacuate. With no cell phone connection, they did not receive text alerts to evacuate.

Instead, every volunteer fireman, every county sheriff’s deputy, power company workers, neighbors, and many others not named had to drive door-to-door to warn people of the need to evacuate. Many people had mere minutes to flee. Often these folks, along with the people warning them, were in immediate danger of the wildfire. Having just enough time to put on a pair of shoes and grab keys to leave.

I was helping people evacuate livestock that first night of the wildfire before I needed to evacuate. However, most of the requests for help came too late as often by the time someone was able to find a location with cell phone service or connectivity, it was too late to help them evacuate their livestock or pets. Even as I would leave to help people, I would often lose cell phone service and connectivity to the person I was trying to help. Making the task that much more difficult.

I can only imagine how different the impacts of the fire would have been if our rural community had been connected and adequately warned in real time as the fire evolved and changed.