When sharks chomp into fiber optic telephone cables on the bottom ofthe Atlantic Ocean, Bernie Wiczulis is one of the first guys to hearabout it.
The Baldwin resident is one of six Harford County residents who work for an American Telephone & Telegraph Co. subsidiary that maintains and repairs undersea fiber optic cables.
The six are part of a select group of 10 people in the nation with the expertise to fuse or mechanically link the delicate glass strands that make up fiber optic cables.
Leaving from a Baltimore terminal aboard one of four specially equipped ships, Wiczulis and the other experts travel the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to reach trouble spots in fiber optic cables on the ocean floor. Their work ensures overseas calls seem like the callers are right next door.
When they leave on a mission, members of the group are never sure whether they'llbe gone for a week or a month.
"I've seen my share of countries in the last three years," said Wiczulis, an effervescent sort who likes to recount amusing anecdotes of joint underwater cable projects with foreign companies.
As in: "Once, a Japanese cook was proud as could be that he was going serve me a Western-style dinner and when I got there, there was a hoagie. I looked at him, and he nodded, and I picked it up and looked -- it was a spaghetti sandwich."
The other fiber optic cable-splicing experts who live in Harford include Wiczulis' boss, Albert Dukes, and Roy Bruce, Bob Garren, Earl Dalrymple andAlan Engvik. All live in the Bel Air area and are employed by Transoceanic Cable Ship Co. Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of AT & T.
"We're a small group, and it's unusual so many of us live in the same place. We recommend Harford County to everybody," said Wiczulis, who was one of two Transoceanic cable experts in town last week. "The friends, schools, taxes are all attractive."
But as much as they all like Harford County, these men went to work for Transoceanic Cable Ship because they enjoy travel, variety and a challenge.
Repairing fiber optic cables is a job that's delicate and dangerous.
It's dangerous because the repairmen must use sharp equipment to cut open thecable and corrosive chemicals to peel away the protective layers encompassing the fibers, Wiczulis said. He cut his hand Thursday while practicing splicing cable with new equipment in Transoceanic's Baltimore lab.
It's delicate because the six hair-thin strands that are the fiber optics must be handled gingerly so they are not broken or bent as they are fused or mechanically linked.
The cable is uncovered, cut and raised to the surface by a SCARAB IV, a huge robot that dives three or four miles down, feels around for the cable on the oceanfloor, pulls it up a little, cuts it and then hauls the cut ends to the ship.
"If you're lucky, a repair job will take 24 hours. If you're not lucky or you make a mistake, it can take two days," Wiczulissaid. "And when you're out on a ship you might be buffeted by winds,and handling fiber is a pretty delicate operation."
The job also requires good judgment and basic mathematics, he said.
"Each ship can hold 3,000 miles of cable," he said. "Imagine if you're laying a cable from the West Coast to Hawaii, and you get within five miles ofthe cable extended from the shore and you don't have enough.
"Youalso have to be careful paying out the cable, because if you have too much slack as you lower it three or four miles down to the ocean floor, it can end up in a knot."
The six-man Harford County contingent of experts will be kept busy for the next few years as the race ison to replace old copper cables with fiber optic cables.
Fiber optics transmits light waves that carry voices, data or video images along thin glass fibers. The fibers can each carry 10,000 calls simultaneously. By using light waves and thin fibers, there's less chance a voice, date or video signal will be distorted than in electronic transmission.
"There's no comparison between the quality of fiber optics and a satellite," Wiczulis said. "A satellite is like talking in abig garbage can."
Sharks were one of the biggest problems Wiczulis and his co-workers faced when fiber optic cable was first introduced about six years ago.
"When the sharks bite the cable, water getsin and shorts out the cable. We've pulled up cable with sharks' teeth still on it. There was enough voltage to fry their jaws, but it cost us $1 million a day," he said.
To outsmart the sharks, the Transoceanic crews worked with cable manufacturers to create "fish-bite," a band of steel and an extra layer of polyethylene that surrounds theslender fiber optic cable.
But other threats lurk beneath the sea, including corrosion from salt water and snags from fishing trawlers.
"We're like firemen," Wiczulis said. "If there's even a minor hesitation in transmission, the wheels turn, and if several hours laterthere's another glitch -- that's what we call them -- we're dispatched.
"It's like when they see smoke . . ., send the firemen and thefire truck."