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Suspected power surge knocks out phones, Internet

PETERBOROUGH — The town of Peterborough is back online, after a power surge zapped all of the public buildings’ phone and Internet connections for most of last week. This included the Town House, the Police and Fire departments’ facilities, the Recycling Center, the Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Recreation and Highway departments and the library.

Although this incident didn’t put the public in danger, it inconvenienced many residents, particularly those trying to renew their yearly car registration.

Nicole MacStay, Peterborough’s assistant town administrator, said in an interview on Monday that the July 28 power surge didn’t debilitate the Fire and Police departments, whose email and Internet are linked to the rest of the town. These departments never lost the ability to communicate through their radios or through a dispatcher. If someone dialed 9-1-1 last week, they could report their emergency to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Hillsborough. The 9-1-1 calls in Peterborough are received by the Sheriff’s Office every night and weekend anyway. The Town Office’s IT department managed to fix Peterborough’s Police and Fire department phone services early Wednesday, because their phone lines are separate from the rest of the town. The rest of municipal buildings couldn’t use their phones all week, until late Friday.

The Police and Fire departments, along with the rest of the town’s employees, couldn’t access their emails, documents on their server or the Internet until Friday. MacStay attributes the Police and Fire departments’ ability to work around this debacle to the redundancies put in place, after a December 2008 ice storm knocked power out for millions throughout New England. These precautions included rerouting emergency calls through the Sheriff’s Office, and having mobile data terminals in police patrol cars. These computers inside the patrol cars allow officers to look up information, like the criminal records of a driver they have pulled over.

The library was able to check out books and other media for patrons last week, despite the issue with the town’s server.

However, MacStay and Town Clerk Linda Guyette said the largest impact of the outage was on Peterborough residents renewing their vehicle registrations. MacStay and Guyette indicated this electrical failure, which lasted all week, couldn’t have happened at a worst time of the month. Anyone who had to complete this registration by July 31, just after town first lost its Internet and phone services, and through the beginning of August, couldn’t finish their whole registration in Peterborough. Instead, they filed the local section of their paperwork in Peterborough. They were then referred to the State’s Department of Motor Vehicle offices in Keene and Milford to finalize the rest of their application. Guyette said Jaffrey’s Town Clerk’s Office also registered Peterborough residents last week. Peterborough residents also couldn’t pay water and other bills, according to Guyette.

By Monday morning, MacStay said the Town Office’s IT department had restored “big chunks” of their computer and phone networks and they were just “working through some of the leftovers.” The only computers not fixed yet are those in the Town Clerk’s Office. Besides being tied to the town’s network, computers in the Town Clerk’s Office can also normally connect to any the other town clerk offices across New Hampshire.

The IT staff, according to MacStay, believes thunderstorms around the time of the outage contributed to the power surge that knocked them offline, although she said they couldn’t “definitively” tie the storm to the electrical interruption. No one in the building was aware of lightning directly striking the Town House, where the server is housed, she said. Their was no smoke or fire near the server in the basement of the building, she said. Instead, the power surge was subtle, and might have flickered lights throughout the building. However, MacStay said the event was “enough to wreak havoc on their entire server room.”

The Town Office’s GIS/IT Director Fash Farashani said he was notified of the problem in the late afternoon on July 28. By 7 p.m. that evening, he said he found out their whole computer and phone network was down.

This left all the facilities connected with the server unable to access anything. MacStay said this was particularly problematic because all of the town’s documents, from letterheads and templates for forms to financial accounts, can only be accessed through their computer network that was offline last week. “Administratively speaking, our day-to-day services were pretty limited,” MacStay said.

She said they spent the first four days of last week without phone, Internet and access to their documents, trying to figure out what they could accomplish. To pay town employees, they hand wrote checks with a net amount of what they calculated the town owed them.

IT staff are still completing a network firewall, which is their network security system that prevents anyone from breaking into town files. When asked if anyone could have hacked in to their files all of last week, MacStay said they took all of their data offline. As far as they know, none of the town’s documents or emails have been lost.

On Wednesday, the Town Office will be debriefed by the IT department about the incident.

“It was a good opportunity to look at everything, particularly to see what worked and what didn’t,” MacStay said.

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