Network errors abound in latest series of 911 outages, claim state AG and military

Dec 23, 2021, 12:16 PM | Updated: 2:09 pm
911 outage...
(Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Olympia resident David White’s blood pressure spikes. He calls 911, but hears only a busy signal. His wife rushes him to the hospital in a family truck. He eventually receives medical attention, but the delay and lack of immediate EMT treatment leaves him with lasting illness: kidney disease, glaucoma, migraines and vertigo.

On Dec. 9, King County’s emergency 911 dispatch experienced a service disruption between the hours of 3:15 p.m. and 4:10 p.m. The 911 outage affected emergency services in Seattle, Bellevue, as well as agencies from Snohomish, Kitsap, Clallam, Jefferson, Whatcom and Skagit counties.

In Seattle, residents were asked to contact non-emergency lines or to text 911.

The Washington Military Department (WMD) reports that roughly 2,000 calls were made to approximately 20 call centers during that time, of which 91 callers received busy signals.

The department identified the problem: a routing error in a vendor’s network router. The 911 services are contracted to Comtech Telecommunications.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office indicated it will advocate for “strong penalties” over the mishap, telling MyNorthwest, “I will be closely following the investigation into this month’s outage.”

This is not the first time that the Seattle area has experienced a 911 outage affecting emergency dispatch. Last year, the department moved away from its former provider, CenturyLink, after a widespread outage in December 2018.

That misstep could end up costing CenturyLink millions. The attorney general’s Public Counsel Unit — which represents the customers of state regulated utilities — has urged the Utilities and Transportation Commission to levy the maximum regulatory penalty of $7.2 million against CenturyLink (rebranded as Lumen Technologies in September 2020).

Beginning Dec. 27, 2018, CenturyLink’s fiber optic network failed, causing outages to Washington’s 911 system, which disrupted emergency communications intermittently for 49 hours, affecting upwards of 10,000 calls to 911, according to the attorney general’s office.

“This is not the first time CenturyLink failed to provide reliable 911 services,” Ferguson wrote in a news release. “Imagine being in a car accident or having a medical emergency and not being able to reach 911. As a result of CenturyLink’s conduct, thousands of Washingtonians called 911 only to be met with a busy signal. CenturyLink must pay the maximum penalty for its violations of state law.”

Ferguson alleges that CenturyLink’s technology was “outdated and not sufficiently reliable.” It continues to allege that the “outage could have been reduced if the system had incorporated sufficient vendor diversity, so one technological glitch would not cause a widespread failure.”

As part of the attorney general’s filings against CenturyLink is testimony from four Washingtonians, including the aforementioned David White.

“I believe, but will never know for sure, that prompt EMT treatment and transport during the outage might have kept David’s blood pressure from spiking as high as it did by the time our daughter and I could finally get him to the hospital ourselves,” his wife, Angela White, wrote in a news release.

CenturyLink’s response to the testimony is expected in March 2022.

“We know that when someone calls 911, seconds count and we take that responsibility seriously,” a Lumen spokesperson told MyNorthwest.

“The December 2018 event was caused by an unexpected issue with a vendor’s network equipment and impacted some calls that another Washington state 911 provider was responsible to complete. We are confident the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will reject the allegations in the complaint and in the attorney general’s testimony when the commission is presented with all the relevant information.”

Comtech Telecommunications could not be immediately reached for comment.

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Network errors abound in latest series of 911 outages, claim state AG and military