• Vermont probes blackout of 911
     | August 08,2014

    The day after the state’s 911 system was knocked out for 40 minutes, the state director of the emergency system had hard words about the Colorado company whose technical glitches led to an unprecedented blackout that blocked 83 emergency calls from reaching dispatchers.

    David Tucker, executive director of the state’s Enhanced 911 Board, said Thursday that multiple equipment failures and difficulties working with Intrado — the Longmont, Colorado, company contracted to provide 911 service to the state — not only caused the 40-minute outage but delayed frantic attempts to call back the 83 people who dialed for help while the lines were down.

    “What happened yesterday was a faceplant by the company,” Tucker said Thursday. “There’s just no way to sugarcoat it.”

    Starting at 12:15 p.m. and ending at about 12:55 p.m. Wednesday, no 911 calls made in the state could get through because of what Tucker said was a failure of a primary system and a redundancy loop designed to preclude just such a total collapse of service.

    “Clearly, this is something that shouldn’t happen. We spent a lot of money making sure this never happens,” Tucker said, adding that the state’s five-year contract with Intrado is worth about $10.2 million.

    Compounding the 40-minute outage was an 18-hour delay in tracking down all of the people who tried to call for help — a delay Tucker said Intrado created by refusing to turn over the phone numbers of the 83 emergency callers.

    While state emergency officials were worried about the welfare of those callers, Tucker said the Colorado company was worried about the legal ramifications of turning over phone numbers without permission from various telecommunications companies.

    “That was the part that was most frustrating,” Tucker said. “It was bad enough when the outage took place, but then when we tried to call people back it took a long time to get the information. We didn’t get the last two phone numbers until this morning.”

    “They claimed they had a legal obligation not to release the numbers without permission from the carriers,” he said. “Our argument was that the calls were coming into a 911 emergency system and we needed to check on the welfare of the callers, but they didn’t release any of the numbers to us without obtaining permission to do so first.”

    As of Thursday afternoon, Tucker said staff members had contacted all but two of the people who called 911 during the blackout. He said they all found other means of getting help.

    “Fortunately, the people in need of help had the wherewithal to call their local police department or ambulance service,” he said. “It looks like everyone who needed help got help.”

    But the outage — the only one of its kind Tucker had ever heard of in Vermont — has rattled nerves in Montpelier and Washington, D.C., where he said the Federal Communications Commission has taken an interest in what happened.

    “We’re continuing to pursue an investigation of the incident here and the FCC is involved and reviewing the situation,” the director said.

    A spokeswoman with the FCC said, “We are aware of the outage but have no further comment at this time.”

    The FCC has already investigated Intrado this year as part of an even bigger 911 system blackout that lasted six hours and blocked 4,500 emergency calls in Washington state as well as 911 calls in portions of California, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to statements by David Simpson, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

    Speaking at a “Preservation of 911 Accountability” meeting in Dallas last month, Simpson talked about the April blackout that investigators blamed on Intrado.

    “We cannot afford another instance of failure when it comes to the safety and lives of the American public,” he added.

    A call to an Intrado representative wasn’t returned Thursday night. However, in a statement released by Tucker on Thursday, Intrado Senior Vice President Steve Lowe said, “Intrado goes to great lengths to design networks with multiple layers of redundancy. On August 6, 2014, we experienced a double equipment failure in our network. During system restoration, we discovered another error that caused the network to be temporarily unavailable. Intrado takes our responsibility to 911 very seriously and are working closely with the state of Vermont on this issue.”

    Leading up to the blackout Wednesday, the company had a mostly clean record of service with the state, Tucker and members of the state’s E-911 Board said.

    With the five-year contract coming to an end, the bidding process has already begun for the next contract starting in 2015, Tucker said.

    He said the 911 outage Wednesday wouldn’t prompt the state to seek an early termination of that contract, and he said he couldn’t say whether the incident would factor into the next contract.

    However, he did say that the state agency is looking into legal options for compensation from the incident.

    “It’s too soon to say, but damages are one thing we’re looking into,” he said.

    Roger Marcoux Jr., chairman of the state’s E-911 Board and sheriff of Lamoille County, said Thursday he’s waiting for the results of an investigation into the system failure before passing judgment on the Colorado company.

    “I’m taking this like it’s a police investigation,” Marcoux said. “I’m taking a very scientific approach. I want to make sure that if there’s a glitch again, there’s a redundancy system that will take care of it.”

    The board chairman added that Intrado’s performance has been exceptional in the past.

    “During Tropical Storm Irene the service never went down,” Marcoux said. “It’s a very dependable system and we need to look very carefully at the results of the investigation that we’re just getting started on and go from there.”



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