Cause of 911 system failure in Washington unknown

Staff writerApril 10, 2014 


FILE - City of Puyallup dispatcher Pamela Mandery answers 911 calls in March of 2013. (The News Tribune file)

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer file, 2013

Some emergency 911 calls across Washington and parts of Oregon failed to go through early Thursday because of a problem with the phone system, emergency officials and CenturyLink said.

Service was restored in Oregon by 6:30 a.m. and in Washington by 8 a.m.

It remained unclear later Thursday what caused the 911 system to go down. CenturyLink spokeswoman Kerry Zimmer wouldn’t speculate on whether it was computer hacking or an equipment problem. At some centers a phone line or two continued to work; at others, all the lines were out of service.

“I guess overnight was a good time” for an outage, Zimmer said, “but no 911 outage is good.”

There were no reports of emergencies in which people could not get help because of the outage, state Emergency Management Division spokeswoman Wendy Freitag said.

Those who called 911 during the failure likely were told by an automated voice that their calls could not be completed. 

During the outage, people with emergencies were advised via social media to use a cellphone, which sometimes worked better than a land line. They also could try non-emergency numbers for dispatchers. People also were advised to go to a fire station in person if they could not call for help.

Pierce County dispatch centers began noticing an unusually low volume of 911 calls about midnight. Within the hour,  Emergency Management officials were on a conference call figuring out how to handle the unprecedented problem. 

They activated the emergency center in Tacoma at 2:30 a.m. and spent the next hour verifying alternative phone numbers for local dispatch centers. At 3:18 a.m., the state Department of Transportation posted backup emergency numbers on message boards along Interstate 5. Various agencies then began tweeting about the outage and referring people to backup emergency numbers.

A Pierce County alert was sent out about 6 a.m., notifying residents of the outage and what phone number to call if they needed help. The first call was intended for about 400,000 devices but the alert was canceled early as the 911 system came back online. The call reached 89,000 devices. 

In late morning, a second call alerted the public that the system was running again.

The delay between when the county learned of the outage and sent out the alert was necessary to ensure proper phone numbers were disseminated and that people were in place to answer the phones, Emergency Management spokeswoman Sheri Badger said.

“There’s never been a multi-state outage of 911,” she said. “It was making sure all of our ducks were in a row before we sent out the information.”

About five people were brought in to answer phones at the emergency center.

Although the alert asked people to refrain from calling the alternative emergency numbers unless they needed help, a Washington State Patrol spokesman said four people called in just to test the line set up for Pierce and Thurston counties.

The State Patrol’s dispatch center didn’t experience much change in the number of emergency calls during the outage. They logged 50 calls during the outage, 10 of which came to the backup line. That is compared to 59 during the same time period last Thursday.

South Sound 911, the regional dispatch center approved by voters in 2011 to link several emergency radio networks, said it did not know how many callers were affected.

“An outage of this magnitude, and so widespread, is a serious matter,” South Sound 911 Executive Director Andrew Neiditz said. “We share the same concerns as our citizens and we, too, are eager to learn more about what went wrong with the overall system.”

The service to dozens of emergency dispatch centers is a priority because of the safety issue, said Zimmer of CenturyLink. The company serves all the centers because they are linked.

The state Emergency Management Division, which coordinates dispatch centers and makes contingency plans, will look into what went wrong, Freitag said.

“Is there some vulnerability or gap we need to fill?” she said. “I’m sure it will be done very thoroughly in this case.”

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said Thursday afternoon that she’d been up since the middle of the night, helping with the county response to the outage.

“I’ve been very actively involved in creating our South Sound 911 regional operations system, and we talk a lot of redundancy, we talk a lot about what happens in the event of a natural disaster and do we have the appropriate backups in place,” she said. 

“It begs the question what the state has in place, and that’s the sort of question we’ll have in our further discussions with the state.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

News Tribune staff writer Alexis Krell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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