Cell phones fall silent in Longton

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Lack of cell phone service in Longton, Kansas, has residents asking why and how long will the outage last?  One of the biggest concerns is the safety of the town's students.  Here a middle school student raises her and to answer a question, Jan 8, 2019. Lack of cell phone service in Longton, Kansas, has residents asking why and how long will the outage last? One of the biggest concerns is the safety of the town's students. Here a middle school student raises her and to answer a question, Jan 8, 2019.
Residents got this letter from Pioneer Wireless last year warning them service would end December 31st, 2018, and suggesting customers go to U.S. Cellular, which would be taking over service to the area. Residents got this letter from Pioneer Wireless last year warning them service would end December 31st, 2018, and suggesting customers go to U.S. Cellular, which would be taking over service to the area.
January 1st, 2019, despite switching their service providers, residents of Longton, Kansas, lost all cell phone service.  They still don't know why. January 1st, 2019, despite switching their service providers, residents of Longton, Kansas, lost all cell phone service. They still don't know why.
With about 2/3 of Longton residents having cell phones only, the local Mini Mart has become a message center.  Here, clerk Mona Cody looks up a landline number in the phone book on January 8th, 2019. With about 2/3 of Longton residents having cell phones only, the local Mini Mart has become a message center. Here, clerk Mona Cody looks up a landline number in the phone book on January 8th, 2019.
LONGTON, Kan. (KAKE) -

Cell phones are silent in one Kansas town after what was supposed to be a change in carriers ended all service to residents as of January 1st.

Now, the folks in Longton, Kansas, in Elk County, say the silence is a safety issue.

"You never realize how much of our life and our world is all centered around cell phones," said Jason Crawford, superintendent of the Elk Valley Public Schools in Longton.

Last December, residents say cell phone provider Pioneer Wireless sent them a letter announcing the company would be leaving.  Many signed up with the suggested U.S. Cellular.  But, they say, that didn't work as well as expected.

"All of a sudden the service just went completely off," Crawford said.

Since January 1st, a no service signal is all you see on cell phones in Longton and inside the Elk Valley Public Schools.

"Do you have a copy?"

Crawford has returned to using two way radios to stay in contact with his faculty and staff.  Something that's not always reliable, he says. 

"Dug up the old radios and making sure our repeater doesn't go off line, lose electricity.  I mean those are all those issues that, again, you're still vulnerable," he said.  

Student safety is his biggest concern.

"What are we going to do when we send teachers out to the playground?  You know, one teacher's watching 30 or 40 kids during recess.  What happens if I have kids on the school farm and someone breaks an arm?  Does the teacher leave all those students behind?  Bring them all with them?  It changes every contingency plan that you've kind of thought through," Crawford said.

And it's not just about life endangering emergencies.  It's also about basic operations, for example when school has to close early due to the weather or something is going on outside the school you don't want kids to witness.

"Sometimes there's emergencies you just don't want to broadcast over the intercom. so email and texting, that was always our line of defense," Crawford explained.  

For example, at the beginning of the school year when there was a murder/suicide just a few houses up the street from the schools.

"The way I found out about it at the time was a staff member was leaving early and they called me on the cell phone and said, 'Hey, don't send students down the street here.  There's an active crime scene going on.'  We had no other way to know about that."

Meanwhile, Elk County Commissioner Shari Kaminska is worried about fire safety.

"We have a lot of fuel on the ground from grass, we're in tall grass country," Kaminska said.  "There's a lot of wildfire danger this time of year.  And if someone's out and they see a small fire and they're unable to report it, it could escalate into something really bad."

Maybe a third of Longton still has landlines, leaving many without any means of communication right now.  Many in town have also thought about medical emergencies with an aging population.

"I've got a 95-year-old father-in-law and they don't have a landline," said Mona Cody.  "If they have an emergency... they.. I don't know.  It's just scary."

Cody works at Kirk's Mini Mart, the local convenience store.  In the face of the phone silence, it has become the town's de facto communication center.

"Whenever sirens come into town we get the call of what's going on," Cody said.  "And sometimes people call us to tell us what's going on so we can pass the word on."

Everyone says they just want answers right now.  What's behind this silence?  How long will it last?  Is there anything they can do to fix things?

"Give us an answer.  Tell us it'll be a year or maybe six weeks.  Just tell us that so we can re-adapt our plans, you know?" said Crawford.  "For the safety of kids and our staff."

"If this is our new normal, I think that probably people will have to make adjustments.  So mainly at this point we want information," said Kaminska.  "But, also, if there's something that we can do to help support the infrastructure for these cell towers to make it profitable for them to be in this small area, I'd like to see that happen."

KAKE News is reaching out to the Kansas congressional delegation and the cell phone companies involved to see if we can find out what's going on.  We'll let you know what we learn.