Schumer: Sandy exposed cellphone weakness

Senator Chuck Schumer speaks beside U.S. Secretary of

Senator Chuck Schumer speaks beside U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano during a press conference at the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management in Bethpage. (Nov. 6, 2012) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Superstorm Sandy victims, first responders and regional officials joined Sunday with Sen. Charles Schumer in Manhattan to call on the Federal Communications Commission and the mobile phone industry to develop a plan to reinforce cellphone infrastructure against extreme weather.

"FCC should bring everyone in who has skin in the game," Schumer said. "It's life and death."

Schumer's office said the FCC has indicated one in four mobile phone towers were knocked out in the storm-affected parts of Long Island, lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens. A week into the aftermath, about one in five remained out of commission even as increased loads on the remaining towers hampered service, he said.

Schumer said that the FCC must work with cellphone companies to develop hardened towers on higher ground, install more backup generators and have backup stationary and vehicular towers ready.

Officials with the FCC and several cellphone companies were not available for comment yesterday.

The communications blackout made first responders unable to reach many stranded New Yorkers, who for days were unable to call 911 to report flooding, fire or looting. People also struggled to notify ambulances and had to walk to police staging areas to request assistance.

"A few minutes after the water started to rise, I heard a knocking on my door. It was a family with a little baby that had actually walked through chest-high water to get shelter," said Long Beach City Council president Len Torres. "One of the things they said to me was, 'We couldn't call the police.' "

"The biggest challenge . . . was simply getting word to our residents [about] what they needed to know to be safe," said Long Beach City manager Jack Schnirman. Long Beach had to deploy generators and portable towers in Sandy's aftermath.

Schumer praised the mobile providers, saying that they did "better than the electric companies on Long Island," but added that current infrastructure wasn't sufficient.

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