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CenturyLink vendor again blamed for 911 outage in multi-state outage

Corey Olson fields a call at the Red River Regional Dispatch Center in downtown Fargo in this file photo. David Samson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—The CenturyLink vendor responsible for a major 911 outage in 2014 was also responsible for the multi-state disruption that led to an untold number of unanswered emergency calls Wednesday, Aug. 1.

"I have never in my 30 years experienced an outage such as what we experienced yesterday," Dana Wahlberg, director of the Department of Public Safety's emergency communication networks division said during a news conference Thursday.

The outage across the state's 102 dispatch centers took place shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, and lasted roughly 50 minutes. North Dakota and North Carolina were also confirmed to be affected, officials said.

The Fargo-Moorhead area and its counties Cass and Clay, lost service for nearly an hour, though surrounding counties in both Minnesota and North Dakota were unaffected, officials said.

The vendor, Longmont, Co.-based West Safety Services, was "completing a routine process on their network when yesterday's outage occurred," state officials said.

In 2014, the company — then called Intrado — was responsible for an outage affecting 6,600 calls in seven states, where 11 million people were without 911 service for six full hours. That outage primarily affected the state of Washington, but also interfered with 70 calls in Minnesota, mostly in the metro area.

"What is most troubling is that this is not an isolated incident or an act of nature. So-called 'sunny day' outages are on the rise," a Federal Communications Commission report on the 2014 incident stated. "That's because, 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 report noted that 911 networks switching from the old, circuit-switched systems to Internet-based systems, like the one now used in Minnesota, need to be closely examined and monitored for vulnerabilities. While Internet-based systems allow for more flexibility in routing calls, outages can affect much wider coverage areas.

"This has concentrated critical functions in fewer locations that are more distant ... Redundancy and responsibility are both endangered," the report noted, adding, "Large-scale outages ... may result when (IP-based) networks do not include appropriate network architectural safeguards."

Minnesota officials still aren't sure how many calls were missed during the Wednesday outage, but counties across the state reported being at least partially affected, Wahlberg said. Some calls across the network were received successfully; others were not.

Wahlberg said she also received emails from colleagues in Ohio and Louisiana about outages.

"It could very well have been far more area," Wahlberg said.

Wahlberg said to her knowledge there was no evidence that the outage was the result of some sort of deliberate attack on the network, which is internet-based.

CenturyLink is conducting its own investigation into the outage, which they have 14 business days to complete and give to the state.

As for the report, "We expect that CenturyLink will review every factor and will provide us with a full reason for outage. ... We will expect data, concrete data, that will guide us in understanding what the issue was," Wahlberg said. "We expect our 911 system to be reliable and dependable, and as such we hold our vendors accountable for that. ... I expect 911 to work. My dad called 911 three days ago."

CenturyLink released a brief statement confirming that a third-party vendor "affected enhanced services supporting 911."

Frank Tutalo, CenturyLink's director of corporate communications, said he had not heard any reports of issues related to the vendor in states other than Minnesota, North Dakota and North Carolina. He also said there was no evidence of a deliberate attack on the network.