DUGGER -- Can you hear them now?
At long last, Dugger residents -- and those just passing through -- may be able to answer affirmatively to the old Verizon cell phone commercial's question.
"We just got home from having a cheeseburger at the Uptown," said Lesa Lewellyn. "People with Verizon had four (cell phone signal) bars inside the bar! Whoo-hoo!"
A series of cellular phone boosters are being installed this month.
Verizon was first, going on-line last Monday, with AT&T soon to follow.
That's a major improvement for the small eastern Sullivan County community, located near the western Greene County border. For years it has been a "dead zone" where cell phones lose signal.
Getting the problem fixed, however, took time.
Town officials had previously lobbied cell phone providers such as Verizon and AT&T for several years, attempting to resolve the problem to no avail.
During his term as Town Council president, Bill Pirtle enlisted area mine officials, the Sullivan County Community Hospital, state lawmakers and other businesses in the push to improve calling signals inside the city.
Previously, town officials have also circulated petitions, asking locals to show their support for improved service. Signatures abounded. Quick fixes, however, did not.
The futility of attempting calls has made some locals refuse to buy cell phones, long after a sizable portion of the nation's switched from land lines.
Indeed, Dugger remains one of the few communities in the state where pay phone kiosks haven't been completely eliminated, with a few remaining through the community.
"I don't have a cell phone myself since we don't have a signal here," Town Councilman Kermit King said with a laugh.
Still, King knows the dropped calls may have hurt Dugger in terms of commerce and traffic. They've meant travelers who rely on the cell phones to do business might take alternate routes to avoid lost calls.
"It used to be that if you'd come through Dugger, you might as well hang it up until you get through," he allows.
Now, King can see the improvements firsthand, via his family. His grandson Kade King's a Verizon cell phone owner.
"He has a perfect signal right here in Dugger," the councilman said. "He's happy."
The move benefits the phone companies as much as the community, and also could add business to local cell phone stores, King added.
"I imagine a lot of people might want to buy cell phones after this, who have put it off because they had no signal here," King observed. "It's also easier on the phone companies, because the more folks who are on cell phones, the less maintenance the companies have to do on landlines.
For many locals, the realization came gradually. No formal announcement's been made that service has improved -- simply word of mouth as people noticed their calls weren't dropping out when they passed through.
"I haven't had any cell phone calls yet," said Dugger resident Vicki Figg. "But I have 3 bars of signal where normally I had none -- or maybe one."
Moments later, she confirmed for herself her cell phone now works inside the town limits.
"I just called my cell phone from my house phone to test it, and the call came right through," Figg exulted. "Now, maybe I won't have to explain to everybody to try both of my numbers to reach me."
In town, signal loss has been so problematic Town Marshall David Heaton once purchased a $300 repeater to install in his patrol car, just to maintain a cellular signal.
The situation's become so problematic for other rescue and emergency workers that many purchased their own signal enhancers out of pocket to ensure they can reach other agencies -- and be reached as needed.
It's also proven risky to those who relied on cell phones when they were in accidents or needed roadside assistance. Lost calls and dropped signals meant some couldn't get the help they needed.
That makes the changes very welcome among law enforcement and emergency workers -- and makes a community which is forming its own community watch feel safer.
"It's a very big improvement," said Sullivan County Sheriff's Department dispatcher Jeff Kinnett. "It will help with the linking of first responders and dispatch."
Greene County counterparts concurred.
"Basically, we're very glad," said Greene County Sheriff's Department dispatcher Kelly Portteus. "The cell phone service was so poor...It's great they've got a tower in that area now. We'll have better cell service and better cell reception, instead of having difficulty hearing them."
In instances of accidents or emergencies, those lost signals could literally be a matter of life -- or death. Moreover, the fact the community borders two counties meant both Greene and Sullivan agencies had to face the dropped calls.
"Sometimes it'd hit our phones and it was in Sullivan, so we'd have to transfer over there," Portteus observed. "Sometimes it was ours and Sullivan would get it, then transfer to us. Either way, the lost calls were hard."
Emergency Management Agency officials in both Sullivan and Greene counties have repeatedly said dead zones such as Dugger's cause concerns that rescue workers, police and firefighters may miss calls.
Sullivan County Emergency Management Director Jim Pirtle, during the 2008 floods which swelled the Wabash River and adjoining creeks into some area homes, suggested the cellular woes in areas such as Graysville and areas west of Dugger which flooded, may have hindered rescue work.
Some citizens fear the improvements won't alleviate the town's cellular phone "dead zones" entirely where service drops out. Signal strength still varies, some Dugger residents noted.
"For Verizon it has (improved). The new tower became active last Monday," Lewellyn said. "No word on when the AT&T tower will be operational."
AT&T is not the sole cellular service to lose signal. Cingular and other providers also have signals which often go dead.
Only Verizon and companies piggybacking on its tower presently have improved signal.
AT&T officials could not immediately be reached for word on when their signal strength will be boosted.
If a repeater tower is installed which boosts signal, other cell phone companies could also utilize it, improving service for multiple providers.
"The Verizon tower is active and the AT&T tower will be right close behind them," King said. "I don't know how soon, but I don't see AT&T letting Verizon have it to themselves for long. That's not anything official, though."
Still, King's optimistic.
"They do have a signal, and it's going to get better, I'm sure," he said. "It might take a month or so more, but I think it's a good thing."