Death Valley, Calif. is remote, rugged and hot — mostly really hot. Temperatures can hover around 120 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks or months on end. It’s an unrelenting, searing heat that bleaches the color from the sky and sucks the liquid out of every living thing.
In this challenging environment, Eric Banks and Kenton Crooms work to keep our customers connected. Both systems technicians in Network Operations consider themselves detectives of sorts. They spend their days digging through clues about customer service problems in a place like no other.
Death Valley is located in the Mojave Desert, almost 300 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It includes such welcoming locations as Stovepipe, Furnace Creek and Devil’s Cornfield.
And it really is the hottest place on Earth. The air temperature reached 134 degrees F, setting the world record, on July 10, 1913. The highest ground temperature ever recorded was 201 degrees on July 15, 1972.
The temperature this year topped out at 129. If you enjoy sticking your head in a hot oven, chances are you’ll love Death Valley — just as Eric and Kenton do.
“We just don’t give up”
“When I encounter a problem that seems insurmountable, the thing I like best is coming up with a solution nobody thought possible and getting the customer back in service,” Eric said. “We just don’t give up out here. When we sink our teeth into something, we get it done, no matter what.”
Most of their work is inside Death Valley National Park. They work on everything from the unmanned central office to small businesses and customers’ homes. Many of our 429 customers are in widely scattered towns and trailers.
Government agencies — such as schools, state offices and the state transportation department — rely on T-1 service. Microwave carries the circuits out of the valley to the outside world.
Heat can dry out wire insulation, so preventative maintenance is critical. And the central offices — about the only thing we have there that’s air-conditioned — come with back-up generators, just in case the power fails.
Fried eggs, melting shoes and gallons of ice water
“This is a land of temperature extremes,” Eric said. “One winter, I got snowed in for several days. But mostly I remember the heat.
“When it’s really hot, there’s nothing you can do. It can be well over 110 in the shade, day in and day out. You’re pretty miserable. All you can do is drink plenty of liquids and take plenty of breaks.”
“We give them the proper training for such a harsh environment,” said Jim Clark, the Core I&M Network Services director for Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “That kind of heat can drain you very quickly, and they know how to pace themselves.”
The techs dress for safety — sunscreen, undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, boots, jeans, a big hat and sunglasses. Staying covered up promotes sweating, which cools the body as the sweat slowly evaporates.
Eric uses an umbrella for extended stays outside. And of course, water. Kenton said he consumes between eight and 13 gallons of ice water per day.
“You can feel the sun stinging your skin up to about 110 degrees,” Kenton said. “As the temperatures rise higher, though, it feels like another body on your back.”
Eric recalls a gas station attendant telling him about pumping gas for a woman as they stood on the asphalt, talking.
“The woman had on these plastic high-heeled shoes, and as they talked, the guy said she just kept shrinking as her shoes melted into the asphalt.”
And Raul Gutierrez, manager-Network Operations, said that yes, they have indeed fried eggs in the heat.
“You can’t just throw an egg on a rock and cook it,” he said. “But just for fun, we have put oil in a pan and cooked an egg that way.”
Most of Death Valley is flat, but it also has rugged hills — with names like Last Chance Mountain, Dante’s View, Deadman’s Pass and Coffin Peak — and treacherous mountain roads. A map of the area includes these warnings: “Road conditions require experienced 4-wheel drivers,” “Deep sand” and “Rough narrow, winding road. Vehicles longer than 25 feet not allowed.”
“That area has a lot of rough terrain and the weather changes drastically,” Jim said. “We make sure two techs ride together and we use four-wheel vehicles. Because of the remoteness, they also carry satellite telephones if they can’t use a landline phone.”
“People think the heat is the most dangerous thing we face, but it’s the flash floods,” said Raul. “In the rainy season, storms can appear suddenly and wash away dirt roads.
“You may have a road one minute and 15 minutes later, nothing. We tell our people that when they see the sky get really black, get out quick.”
A different kind of customer
A special place like Death Valley attracts a special kind of customer. When things go wrong, they aren’t likely to let us know.
“Most customers really don’t want people to call them,” said Eric. “They move here to get away from people, so dial tone isn’t their No. 1 priority.”
Customers usually don’t report outages. Instead, when they hear the “telephone man” is in the area, they come find us to let us know they need service.
“They are real nice when you do come out,” Eric said. “They tell me their problem and I fill out a ticket and fix their problem. They are happy I’ve helped them and usually offer me something to eat or drink.”
His family thinks he’s crazy
Just one highway leads into Death Valley, and the AT&T work center is in Baker, about 90 miles away.
“It takes a very special person to work in the desert who can work under those conditions,” Raul said. “They know what they are up against and they definitely take care of business for our customers day in and day out.”
Both Eric and Kenton fit the role. Eric has served the area for 10 years and Kenton four. Kenton, who grew up in Los Angeles, has come to love the remoteness of the area.
“I kind of did a 180 after working in a city,” Kenton said. “Now I’d rather be out here with the quiet and the stars. My family thinks I’m going nuts.”
Watch out for the wildlife
If you’re in Death Valley, a word to the wise: watch where you put your hands and feet. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes and mountain lions, among others, call it home. People are the uninvited — and unwanted — guests.
Raul was out with the team one day when he crested a hill and came upon two coyotes staring at him. And they weren’t backing away.
“They looked at me like, ‘How dare you?’” he said. “’You’re on their turf, and they are not afraid of you.’ I slowly backed away and got out of there.”
Eric once got to see a mountain lion up close and personal.
“I came around a building, and there was this mountain lion about 50 feet from us,” he said. “He took off around the corner and was gone. That was unusual, because they typically don’t come out.”
It’s all part of a day’s work — often a long day.
“We try not to work at night if possible because of the terrain,” Raul said. “Sometimes we have no choice. And we work through the day. Because of the transit time, we don’t work eight-hour days. The average is 10, and sometimes it’s longer.”
“I’ve been known to drive 500 miles some days,” Eric said. “Not every day, but sometimes. It’s a huge area, and there’s really nothing like it. We end up doing a little bit of everything. It’s certainly not boring.
“It’s extremely satisfying to work in what is one of the most unique environments in the world and solve our customers’ issues,” he said. “Keeping the customer connected, regardless of the conditions — that’s what it’s all about.”