A telecommunications network outage disrupted 911 calls in Massachusetts and across the country Friday, creating confusion among first responders and exposing a major weakness in the emergency response network.
CenturyLink Inc., one of the nation’s largest telecom providers, said a technical problem led to failed 911 calls made by cellphones in many parts of the country. The Louisiana-based company said Thursday night that it expected service to be restored in four hours, but the job took until about 8 p.m. Friday to complete.
Per State 911 Dept., system issues that caused sporadic 911 outages today have been corrected, at least in MA. Systems have been tested & emergency calls to 911 are being routed to dispatch centers.— MEMA (@MassEMA) December 29, 2018
Please do NOT call 911 to test functionality, only call in an emergency. pic.twitter.com/Ekubm1rOBF
As of Friday evening, there was no indication the coast-to-coast disruption of 911 calling had exacerbated any emergency situations or resulted in injuries or deaths. But at least two emergency text alerts — usually reserved for missing children and dangerous weather — were blasted to cellphones nationwide.
CenturyLink did not say what caused the network failure, one of several that have affected CenturyLink and other carriers in recent years. The incident prompted the Federal Communications Commission to announce an investigation — the second for a 911 outage that the agency has conducted of the company in four years.
“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “The CenturyLink service outage is therefore completely unacceptable, and its breadth and duration are particularly troubling.”
Centurylink’s stock was not affected by the news, closing little changed at $15.27 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.
Much of the problem appeared limited to the cellular networks, although the Massachusetts State Police said it was having problems receiving 911 calls made over landlines as well.
Police and fire officials had urged callers who were unable to get through the 911 system to instead call the regular 10-digit telephone numbers for their departments, and posted those numbers on social media.
There was also confusion through the day over whether 911 service had been restored. Boston police said the outage was limited to 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Early in the day, the State Police announced the problems had been resolved, but then tweeted in the early afternoon that “there are again some sporadic outages affecting cellular and certain landline 911 calls.”
Cellphone users also received several texts Friday alerting them to the outage and advising them to call the 10-digit numbers for local first responders. At various times, CenturyLink and public officials even suggested callers drive to their nearest police stations if they could not get through by telephone.
Evelyn Bailey, executive director of the National Association of State 911 Administrators and a Vermont resident, called that advice “horrible,” noting that in many rural parts of the country fire stations are unoccupied much of the time.
“No telephone company should ever issue a communication like that,” she said.
Still, Bailey expressed sympathy for CenturyLink’s plight. She noted that troubleshooting a nationwide data network is difficult, because there are so many possible points of failure.
“It’s hard initially to nail down exactly what’s happening,” she said.
For example, 911 system operators often subcontract some tasks to other telecom companies, and so a technical problem in the subcontractor’s system might go undetected for some time.
CenturyLink is a pivotal network operator across the country, providing voice and data services directly for customers and for other telecom providers. It also builds 911 systems for municipal and state governments, but those customers were not affected by the outage even as other systems were impacted by the CenturyLink problems. In Massachusetts, the 911 system is run by defense contractor General Dynamics, although CenturyLink handles emergency calls received over wireless phones.
The FCC has been warning of a growing number of so-called sunny day outages, where parts of the 911 system are unavailable even though there was no natural disaster or large-scale catastrophe that overloaded or took out the emergency call system. The agency blamed the increasingly complex network of multiple telecom systems, with new and sophisticated Internet-based technologies interacting with the legacy Bell Telephone system.
“As 911 has evolved into a system that is more technologically advanced, the interaction of new and old systems is introducing fragility into the communications system that is more important in times of dire need,” the agency said in a proceeding in 2014 following a major outage involving CenturyLink.
In that incident, a software coding error at a facility in Colorado caused a 911 outage that prevented more than 11 million people in seven states from being able to reach emergency call centers for more than six hours.
“It could have been prevented. But it was not,” the FCC said in its findings of the incident, in which it reached a $16 million settlement with CenturyLink and a $1.4 million settlement with another telecom provider, Intrado Communications.
And the FCC fined AT&T $5.25 million for outages in 2017 that blocked some 15,000 911 calls from getting through, and affected millions of customers for almost six hours.
The outage this week once again renewed calls for the US government to push for a major upgrade of the 911 system.
“What we need to do is have huge investments in our infrastructure,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat. “The fact that a significant portion of Americans don’t have the ability to have an immediate 911 response is scary.”
Bailey seconded Khanna’s call for a nationwide 911 overhaul. “I think possibly what we’re saying is the downside of continuing to have this patchwork of technologies,” she said.
A newer system, called Next Generation 911, that is slowly being deployed around the country would greatly reduce the risk of a major meltdown, she said; if one part of the network breaks down, a next-gen system would instantly reroute the calls through different call centers in other cities or states, with no service interruptions.
Still the next-gen system is in place in Massachusetts, and local agencies were hit by the 911 outage this week.
Meanwhile, there are still some old-school emergency systems in use. In Boston, fire officials said the outage prevented a caller from notifying them of a building fire in the North End around 5 a.m. Fire officials said in a tweet that the person instead pulled a fire box located nearby.
“Fire was quickly extinguished. . . . Fortunately, our fire box system has been operational since 1852,” the Fire Department tweeted. “No injuries.”