Recent 911 outage forced jurisdictions to scramble

Staff writerApril 14, 2014 

Last week’s 911 outage prompted the most widespread use ever of Pierce County’s emergency alert system, which sends messages to land lines and cellphones across the county.

The 89,000 notifications sent were less than one-quarter of the 411,000 messages the county intended to send. The calls, which were to go out in groups and began about six hours after the statewide outage was noticed, were discontinued after the first wave. By then, the 911 system was working again. 

State officials noticed around midnight Thursday that 911 calls weren’t getting to emergency call centers. Pierce County then took steps to arrange backup numbers, and to send alerts to land line numbers in the county’s 911 database and to cellphone users who had signed up for notifications, a total of 411,000 calls.

“The last time we did something so large was when we had the missing child in Tacoma a year and a half ago,” said Sheri Badger, spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management.

Even that alert had a smaller radius, she said. Targeted for the city, not the county, it reached about 60,000 land lines about 4:20 a.m., Nov. 14, 2012.

Thursday, county officials waited to send a message about the 911 outage to residents until 6 a.m. By then they had reached each 911 call center to confirm which backup numbers to distribute, and to check that each center had someone staffing its alternate number, Badger said.

“We do have communications protocols for power outages and communications down for certain parts of the county, but a full failure of the 911 system is not something that has occurred,” she said. “Of course, having it be in the middle of the night was a bit more of a challenge than if it had occurred in the middle of the day.”

Sending an alert before 6 a.m. simply to say 911 systems were down was not something the county was willing to do, she said.

“If you’re telling people: ‘Don’t call 911,’ and not giving them an alternative (number), you’re only giving them half the information,” Badger said. “By not giving them all the information, there’s a possibility of sending some panic out there.”

When officials were ready, they hit the button to send the news to the 411,000 devices. The agency sent messages in geographic waves, starting at 6 a.m. Within the first hour, the agency reached the 89,000 devices before the notifications were canceled because the 911 systems were up and running again. 

For many, the first word they got from the county was about noon, saying the 911 system had been restored.

Why were not all of the notifications sent at once? 

Sending them to all 411,000 devices at once, Badger, said, would have taken longer, though she didn’t know by how much.  

About 11 a.m. officials started sending a follow-up message to say 911 services were working again. Badger said they waited to send that all-clear message until they had word from the state that 911 systems were fully functioning. Other agencies sent their alerts and follow-up messages earlier.

The University of Washington in Seattle, for example, used its opt-in system to tell more than 120,000 devices at 4:30 a.m. that the 911 system was down and to provide an alternate emergency number. About 7:30 a.m. UW sent a message that the problem had been fixed. 

“We have learned over time that when we have a situation, even if we don’t have complete information, we need to tell people,” UW spokesman Norm Arkans said. “If it would have taken us two hours to have a number, I think we would have sent out a message anyway just to let people know the 911 system was down.” 

But he noted that the needs of a county versus the university differ.

“I think if you’re a county, you really need to give people an alternative (number),” he said.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268

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