Washington firefighters respond after Verizon intentionally slowed data during fire fight

Local fire departments are responding to a scathing report that Verizon throttled cell service as firefighters battled the largest fire in California’s history.

“We can save time. It makes our responses a lot quicker,” said firefighter Johnny Sarreal with Renton Regional Fire Authority.

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Sarreal said having reliable cell service is critical for public safety.

All front-line rigs with the Renton Regional Fire Authority are now stocked with a smartphone.

“We can catch all those hydrants, see where the connections are, see where access points are,” Sarreal explained. “It's huge having this right at our pocket and fingertips.”

But as wildfires raged in California, firefighters battling the largest one in California's history - the Mendocino Complex fire - said their ability to communicate was jeopardized when their cell service was throttled by Verizon. In a lawsuit over the FCC's repeal of net neutrality rules, the Santa Clara Fire Department said their unlimited plans were slowed down because Verizon said they were using too much data. Their fees tripled when the department asked Verizon to unthrottle their service.

Verizon said what happened has nothing to do with net neutrality. A spokesperson said in a statement "We made a mistake… we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us."

KIRO 7 asked Chief Rick Marshall with the Renton Regional Fire Authority if this could be the difference between life and death.

“It has been if you talk about communication as a whole in the fire service,” Marshall answered.

Marshall said his department was with Verizon up until two months ago. His department has never been the victim of throttling but decided to switch to FirstNet, powered by AT&T, which is the first-ever broadband network for public safety agencies.

“The incident that appears to have happened in California, it’s a perfect illustration of why we made the switch to FirstNet,” Marshall added.