Until last month, the 911 emergency system had not failed statewide, hypothetically or otherwise.
“Nobody thought this could happen,” said Lowell Porter, the head of Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management. “It’s not like we had a plan.”
But since the outage that kept 4,500 emergency calls from getting through April 10, county officials have thought a lot about that previously unthinkable scenario, and what to do if it happens again.
For starters, there will be one backup emergency number for all residents to use. From about midnight to 6 a.m. during the outage, residents needing emergency aid had to figure out which of the seven 10-digit numbers to use for Pierce County dispatch centers, based on their area.
The county distributed the numbers during the outage, but said it would be better for residents if only one number was put out countywide.
“If our backup is one 10-digit number, I think that’s about as easy as it gets,” Porter said.
Emergency officials have whittled the list down to three numbers. Before they designate one number, they have to decide which agency would best handle a run of 911 calls and must make sure the single line picked could handle the number of emergency calls it potentially would receive.
County officials have declined to say what the three numbers are, in the hopes they won’t have to use them before the single emergency backup number is available, expected in June. When the final, single number is ready, they’ll publicize that, Porter said.
But it shouldn’t be needed; CenturyLink, the telecommunications company that provides the 911 network for the state, has said the problem that caused the April outage has been fixed, and that other steps have been taken to prevent similar problems.
The outage happened when a third-party vendor for CenturyLink had an issue that kept emergency calls from being routed to Washington dispatchers from a Colorado complex, where 911 calls are processed and sent to the appropriate call centers.
The calls are routed through Colorado as part of CenturyLink’s contract with Washington to provide a standardized 911 network (as opposed to county- and city-run systems).
Despite the outage, about 770 calls did get through. The state Utilities and Transportation Commission is reviewing the outage.
Dispatchers and county officials had trouble figuring out what was happening during the outage because a 911 failure of that magnitude was unprecedented, officials said. Because they were unsure how big the outage was, the county’s priority early that morning was to make a plan for dealing with what might be a long-term national or even global outage.
Once officials turned to notifying residents about the problem, Porter said, they were careful in how they crafted the message eventually sent to county phones with information about the backup emergency numbers. They had to make sure the backup numbers were correct, and that the message wasn’t confusing, which took time, he said.
The alert reached only about 89,000 of the 411,000 devices targeted, because within the first hour of sending notifications, the county realized the 911 system was working again, and officials canceled the remaining messages.
Smaller alerts had been sent to specific areas of the county within minutes, but reaching the entire county takes longer, Porter noted.
The county learned a lot about the notification system because of the recent outage, he said.
“There are limitations,” he said.
Local officials plan to talk to the alert system vendor, Everbridge, to find out what modifications could be made to the notification system. But no phone-based system would get an emergency message to the entire county instantaneously, said Tim Lenk, the county’s Enhanced-911 coordinator.
Officials point out that social media, radio and television alerts and flashing freeway signs are also tools to get emergency messages out, they said. During the April outage, the backup phone numbers were posted via a banner on the county website and tweeted out about 3 1/2 hours into the disruption.
Should an outage happen again, officials think their experience with the last one will make for a faster alert to the public.
“When they said: ‘That’ll never happen,’ you’ve got to really think on that,” Lenk said. “If it does, what do you do?”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268