By Julie Watts

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — Accusations by a Bay Area fire chief against Verizon claiming the carrier put lives at risk by slowing internet speeds for crews and customers in fire zones are raising concerns of data throttling could impact the public in other emergencies.

The Santa Clara County Fire Chief said his department’s data speed was restricted by Verizon as crew fought the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in state history.

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The data throttling made it difficult for them to share vital information

And for those at-risk to access it.

The department had reached its monthly data cap even though they had an unlimited plan.

So Verizon slowed down their data, which they say hindered their ability to fight the fire.

Throttling is an issue consumers often face and first responders say it could be dangerous.

Between fires and earthquakes, the Bay Area is somewhat prone to disasters.

The internet has become a critical way for us to communicate with the public in an emergency, said Santa Clara County Fire Captain Bill Murphy.

While the data throttling impaired how firefighters were able to communicate information, fire officials were even more concerned about Verzion throttling the data of the general public when access to evacuation warnings, maps, and social media alerts could mean the difference between life and death.

“Our concern is the public’s ability to access the information we are providing to them via the Internet,” said Murphy.

Santa Clara County Fire is among two dozen local and state agencies suing the FCC in an effort to reinstate net neutrality rules. They’re using their own data throttling as an example.

In December, the FCC repealed Obama-era net neutrality regulations.

Critics worried internet providers like Comcast and Verizon would start charging tech giants like Netflix and Google for faster service while relegating smaller websites that couldn’t afford to pay to the proverbial internet slow lane.

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Now emergency responders are pointing out that net neutrality goes far beyond entertainment, impacting to public safety

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai insisted that consumers would be protected even after net neutrality was repealed.

“We’ve empowered the Federal Trade Commission to take targeted action against any bad apple in the internet economy,” said Pai.

Still, it’s unclear if throttling during an emergency reaches that threshold.

CNET Executive Editor Ian Sherr said throttling concerns are not new.

“This lawsuit is essentially the government doing its job,” said Sherr. “The police departments and the fire departments are trying to draw attention to Verizon’s behavior. And Verizon already realizes though their statement that they probably didn’t make the right call here.”

Tuesday Verizon admitted it’s shouldn’t have throttled the data during an emergency, calling it “customer support mistake.”

But the company added that throttling “has nothing to do with net neutrality.”

Emergency responders disagree.

If the data is throttled on the public’s end, their ability to download that information is going to be severely impacted.

Verizion told KPIX that in an emergency, consumers primarily use their cell phones to call or text. Verizon doesn’t restrict calls and texts.

They added that, “in a true emergency, customers should contact first responders.”

But first responders note, 911 is often overburdened in a large-scale emergencies.

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That leaves people to rely on maps and apps to help them evacuate and get critical information and that requires data.