By Pat Jenkins
First-responders and residents in south Pierce County dodged the potential of unanswered calls for help during a six-hour outage of 9-1-1 systems earlier this month. Now state and county officials are doing what they can to make sure the scenario doesn’t happen again.
Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission has opened an investigation into what caused the Enhanced 9-1-1 (E911) communications to go down statewide on April 10..South Sound 911, which serves Pierce County, was one of many 9-1-1 dispatch centers in the state that couldn’t take emergency calls and relay them to medical, fire or law enforcement agencies. The county service was out from shortly after midnight until about 6:20 a.m., forcing the public to use backup, non-9-1-1 phone numbers.
Statewide, 4,500 calls to 9-1-1 centers didn’t go through between 12:36 and 6:26 a.m., according to authorities. Approximately 770 calls were completed.
“This outage could have had serious implications for people and emergency responders,” said David Danner, chairman of the commission that regulates telephone services and their providers, including CenturyLink, the company that provides the 9-1-1 system “Our investigation will look into the cause of the outage, the company’s emergency preparedness and response, restoration efforts, and communication with the public.”
South Sound 911 and other Pierce County officials also are seeking answers.
According to CenturyLink, the outage wasn’t caused by malfunctions of its network and also wasn’t related to any kind of breach of computer systems. The company blamed the outage on a technical error in a third-party vendor’s call router, which reportedly prevented the system from processing calls. CenturyLink and Intrado Communications, the vendor, will enhance monitoring of the system and have addressed the router issue. A CenturyLink spokesman said “we are confident these steps have addressed this issue.”
Brian Stading, CenturyLink’s president for its Northwest region, said the company is “working closely with our vendor partner to understand this outage. At this time, we are confident that the 9-1-1 system is fully operational and stable.”
Fire and police departments in south Pierce County reported no trouble from possible missed calls during the outage.
“We really have no way of knowing how many or if any urgent calls were missed. However, no one has directly notified or complained to us about any problems,” said Graham Fire and Rescue chief Ryan Baskett. He added that “with a large volume of calls being missed during the outage, it’s likely some of our citizens were impacted.”
Baskett noted that Graham Fire publishes and answers its own direct-contact phone line and answers it 24 hours a day if personnel are available.
He said all fire agencies “are interested in finding out (what caused the 9-1-1 outage) and how can we prevent this in the future.”
South Pierce Fire and Rescue “had no known calls during the outage” and was ready for them to come directly to fire stations, said chief Bob Vellias.
Eatonville Police chief Jason McGuire said his department had no reports of calls going unanswered.
Information about any impacts on Pierce County Sheriff Department wasn’t available.
The Utilities and Transportation Commission plans to host a public hearing as part of its investigation. Citizens who want to receive direct notice of the hearing can contact the commission at 1-888-333-9882 or email@example.com.
South Sound 9-1-1 became aware of the outage when dispatchers noticed the number of calls was unusually low. Local equipment was working. A South Sound supervisor contacted CenturyLink officials and received confirmation of the outage, according to Andrew Neiditz, South Sound’s executive director.
“We share the same concerns as our citizens, and we’re eager to learn more about what went wrong with the overall system,” Neiditz said.
During the outage, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management’s ALERT system had begun placing calls to phone numbers whose owners had requested notification of emergencies, but stopped after reaching 89,000 phones because 9-1-1 service was resuming. A second call notified the public that the system had been restored.
South Sound 9-1-1 replaced incompatible radio systems and dispatch facilities with a modern system that officials promised will provide fast and reliable communications among law enforcement, firefighters and central dispatchers. The new system was authorized by voters in a countywide election in 2011. Part of the project’s cost of $105 million will be covered by an Enhanced 9-1-1 tax (20 cents per telephone line) that the County Council approved in 2010. Other funding includes general obligation bonds the council approved to finance the purchase and installation of new equipment.