CenturyLink vague on cause of local 911 outage

Staff writerApril 11, 2014 

Thursday’s seven-hour 911 outage apparently stemmed from a malfunction in the telephone networks that people use to make everyday calls, not the separate system that sends calls to emergency dispatchers, state officials said Friday.

But CenturyLink, the Louisiana-based telecommunications company that operates the system, had yet to give state officials a cause for the outage, and didn’t contact them at all until more than 24 hours after the problem was fixed.

Andy Leneweaver of the state Emergency Management Division said he and his staff started trying to contact CenturyLink once Thursday’s problem was resolved to find out what caused the outage, which knocked out 911 service for most of Washington from about midnight until about 6:45 a.m.

It wasn’t until late Friday morning that they got a reply from the company, said Leneweaver, the information technology manager for the state’s Enhanced 911 program, which helps coordinate Washington’s 911 systems.

The company told Leneweaver and crew it still hadn’t determined the exact cause of the problem.

CenturyLink officials declined to say Friday what they believe caused the outage.

“I believe we have a good idea of what happened there,” regional company spokeswoman Jan Kampbell said, though she declined to say what that was.

Later, the company said the outage was caused by a technical error by a third-party vendor.

The unspecified vendor worked with CenturyLink to resolve the issue “as quickly as possible,” the company said in a statement.

CenturyLink contracts with the state to provide the network that routes calls from various telephone carriers, such as Comcast, Vonage and CenturyLink itself, to 911 call centers, Leneweaver said. He said the state determined Thursday’s problem was in the technology that gets calls to the emergency network, not with the network itself.

Leneweaver compared the everyday telephone network to a freeway. It was the off-ramp to the emergency system that malfunctioned, he said. Following that analogy, it’s important to note that 911 calls get special treatment on the main freeway. Like if the president was traveling in an HOV lane, Leneweaver said.

The problem with the network operated by CenturyLink caused some 911 call centers to lose all their phone lines, while others had one or two that still worked. Emergency agencies set up alternative 10-digit numbers for the public to use until the problem was fixed.

CenturyLink told the state Friday morning that it hadn’t figured out for sure whether the Washington outage was related to a simultaneous one in parts of Oregon, Leneweaver said. CenturyLink had twice said the outages were not related.

“Two completely unrelated instances,” spokeswoman Kampbell said. “It’s just uncanny the timing of both of them.”

The only information she gave about the cause of the Oregon outage was that it involved a “technical issue.” The outage affected 16,000 people, CenturyLink said.

The company didn’t say how many people were affected in Washington.

Oregon’s system was fixed at 3:25 a.m. Thursday; Washington’s outage was resolved nearly 3½ hours later, CenturyLink said.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission said Thursday it will investigate the outage.

“Our investigation will look into the cause of the outage, the company’s emergency preparedness and response, restoration efforts, and communication with the public,” said commission Chairman David Danner.

The agency will hold a public hearing on the outage. To receive notice of the hearing, contact the commission at 1-888-333-9882 or comments@utc.wa.gov.

Pierce County executive Pat McCarthy said Friday she wanted to know more.

“I am anxiously awaiting to hear what their response is,” she said of the state and CenturyLink. “I’m absolutely concerned about how it happened, why it happened.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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