Sonic-boom calls raise 911 questions

Officials with Pierce County's largest 911 dispatch center believe they have adequate capacity to handle emergency calls, even though some people who dialed 911 during Tuesday's sonic-boom panic couldn't get through.

Leaders at the Law Enforcement Support Agency said Wednesday they are working to eliminate snags that left some callers with a busy signal Tuesday, but that there are no immediate plans to add more lines into the agency’s communications center.

The agency’s 30 lines – 13 land lanes, 15 cell phone lines and two Voice Over Internet Protocol lines – are adequate to handle the vast majority of situations, said Diana Lock, LESA’s assistant communications director.

The agency would have to add more operators to answer additional lines, and they wouldn’t be needed most of the time, officials said.

The last time there was a similar problem was on July 4, 2009, when callers overloaded the system and some people got a busy signal. The Fourth of July is historically the busiest night of the year for 911 calls in Pierce County.

By contrast, everyone who called 911 during the 2000 Nisqually earthquake got through, and this year’s Fourth of July went smoothly.

The trouble Tuesday was that so many people called 911 after two military fighter jets zoomed across the region generating two thunderous sonic booms that calls bottle-necked at a Qwest transfer station in King County, LESA reported in a news release.

The jets were on their way from Oregon to Seattle to intercept a float plane that violated the no-fly zone protecting President Barack Obama during his visit there. The booms caused pandemonium but no injuries or serious property damage.

All 911 calls from the Puget Sound region are routed through Qwest facilities in King County before being sent to the appropriate emergency response center. The process usually is automated, takes a millisecond to complete and is unnoticed by callers.

On Tuesday the system jammed up when thousands of scared or curious people across the region dialed 911 to find out what caused the booms. Emergency communications officials wish folks wouldn’t do that.

“We certainly understand that people are curious and develop serious concerns about what might be causing it,” said Mike Carson, LESA’s interim director “(911) is not an information line. 911 is there solely for the purpose of reporting emergency activity.”

The deluge overloaded LESA’s ability to field calls for 27 minutes – from 1:55 to 2:22 p.m. Those dialing over Voice over Internet Protocol lines or using the non-emergency number got through, though the line might have rung a few times first.

The agency received 259 911 calls in a 90-minute span Tuesday, compared to 98 during the same period a day before. The number of callers who didn’t get through was not available Wednesday.

Qwest spokesman Bob Gravely said Wednesday that all calls would have made it through if “there were enough lines to receive them.”

Now, the question is how can officials make sure the same problem doesn’t happen again. There were no answers Wednesday.

“We are working through this and getting information from Qwest and trying to find a resolution so this does not happen again,” Lock said.

Trunk lines that feed into 911 centers are doled by the state. LESA can request more lines from the state 911 office. The lines are paid for by a tax that appears on phone bills.

Bob Oenning, system administrator for the statewide 911 system, said his office has reviewed the number of lines LESA has going into its call center.

“The issue is you design trunking for 911 systems to make sure you get no more than one busy (signal) out of 100 attempts during the average busiest hour of the week,” Oenning said. “They (LESA) fall into that nicely.”

Gravely said Qwest works with the state and local call centers to ensure that the 911 system can handle call volumes for peak usage time.

He compared the 911 system to a highway system. The freeways are not designed for everybody to drive on them at the same time.

“If there is an instance for everyone to jump in their car and leave at the same time, you are going to have a major traffic jam,” Gravely said.

In the meantime, LESA officials remind people to call 911 only to report medical emergencies, fires or major criminal activity.

They point to other resources – including the new Pierce County ALERT System – as the proper way to get emergency information during a crisis. The news media is another.

The county’s ALERT System, which went live in July, is a mass notification system. Residents can sign up to be warned of emergencies through automated calls, text messages, e-mails or fax.

In cases of natural disasters or critical police activity, messages are sent out to all registered voice and text devices.

So far, 2,400 people have signed up for the program. Of those, 1,713 receive the community alerts.

The system sent out a community alert at 3:12 p.m. Tuesday regarding the cause of the sonic booms.

People can sign up for the Pierce County ALERT system by visiting www.piercecountywa.org  or calling 253-798-6595.