Opinion

911 system blackout inexcusable; federal and state regulators must respond aggressively

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In times of emergency, nothing’s more reflexive for every American old enough to hold a phone than the ability to dial 911. And few things are more critical to our collective safety than that the 911 system is reliable up and down the line, from people in crisis mode to dispatchers and first responders.

That’s why a recent CenturyLink snafu, which knocked out 911 service for more than 12 hours in Washington and across the country, was an inexcusable breach of public trust that must be dealt with firmly.

You might have missed it in the bustle of the holidays, but thousands of folks faced with emergencies the night of Dec. 27 and the morning of Dec. 28 definitely noticed. They won’t soon forget the helpless feeling of dialing those three easy digits, hearing a rapid busy signal and quickly trying to figure out a Plan B with potential life-or-death implications.

In Pierce County, South Sound 911 Executive Director Andrew Neiditz told us this week that the agency tried to publicize a 10-digit backup number through a pair of reverse-911 text messages. The state emergency management division also used new technology to send a blanket alert to cellular devices.

But it’s unknown at this point how many emergency calls went unanswered and how many of those incidents might have ended badly.

State and federal authorities must ensure all these stories are brought forward and that victims are given straight answers.

Neiditz called the outage “clearly unacceptable,” echoing the national condemnation voiced by Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. In a Dec. 28 statement, Pai said the outage’s “breadth and duration are particularly troubling” and pledged an immediate FCC investigation of the cause and impact.

CenturyLink hasn’t said much yet beyond token press release apologies. It did pinpoint the origin of the widespread disruption to an apparent rogue network connection glitch in Colorado. By law, the Louisiana-based company has 30 days to do a full accounting and report back to federal regulators.

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because CenturyLink was responsible for another egregious 911 outage that hit Washington and six other states in April 2014. It, too, was traced to Colorado, the result of a subcontractor’s software coding error.

A year later the FCC levied a fine of more than $16 million against CenturyLink, at the time the largest 911-related penalty in agency history. As part of the settlement, the company and its subcontractor agreed to steps including better oversight, more identification and protection against 911 service risks, and quick recovery from outages.

Ten months after that, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission issued its own fine of $2.85 million against the telecom giant. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson had pushed for a fine four times larger, and called the settlement “a slap on the wrist.” In hindsight, we don’t disagree with him.

“If this failure does not warrant a maximum penalty, I find it hard to imagine what circumstances would,” Ferguson said at the time.

Well, Washington residents don’t have to imagine any more. While the 2014 outage lasted six hours, the recent blackout dragged on at least twice that long.

Last time, state attorneys highlighted the story of an Everett mom who grabbed a kitchen knife and fended off an intruder in her home at 1:45 a.m., after 37 failed attempts to call 911. It will be interesting to see what stories emerge this time.

Moving forward into 2019, several positive developments are on the horizon for Pierce County’s emergency response system. Neiditz says technology that lets the public reach 911 by text message will be rolled out in the next few months. Construction will begin this summer on a long-awaited 911 center on the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital in Tacoma; it will dispatch calls for 41 local police and fire agencies.

Meantime, the state E911 Coordinator’s Office is overseeing the transition to a next-generation emergency 911 network with a promise of enhanced capabilities at less cost. Each of Washington’s 39 counties is gradually coming aboard, and soon it will be Pierce’s turn, Neiditz says.

Did we mention the contract went to a different telecom partner? Hello, Comtech; good riddance, CenturyLink.

But none of this eliminates the need for strong accountability measures after last month’s outage. State and federal investigations must be proceed thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Fines must be appropriately punitive to ensure that our 911 system is trustworthy, regardless of who holds the contract.

Slaps on the wrist won’t cut it any more.

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