State and federal regulators are investigating a CenturyLink service outage that caused serious disruptions to 911 emergency calls in Washington, as well as other states.

Share story

A CenturyLink service outage caused serious disruptions to 911 emergency calls in Western Washington as well as other states, triggering an investigation by state and federal regulators.

In Western Washington, alerts went out after 11 p.m. Thursday warning that 911 services were not working and to use alternate phone numbers. The system was functioning in Washington by Friday morning but state officials remained cautious through the course of the day as CenturyLink continued to work on service issues.

State emergency officials were still assessing the impacts of the outage, which continued to impact 911 calls, on and off, for about 11 hours in different areas. In 2014, nearly 6,000 emergency calls failed to be routed during a more than six-hour outage involving CenturyLink .

The Federal Communications Commission will investigate the 911 outages, and chairman Ajit Pai called the length and breadth of the CenturyLink outage “completely unacceptable.”

“When an emergency strikes, it’s critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help,” Pai said in a statement released Friday by the FCC. It noted the investigation will include an examination of the cause of the outage and its impact on 911 service providers.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission will also investigate the outage, including the cause and the company’s preparedness, response, restoration efforts and communication with the public, according to a statement made Friday.

Other states with 911 outages included Massachusetts, Minnesota, Arizona, Utah and Missouri, according to news reports.

CenturyLink announced a service disruption Thursday morning affecting customer service that would be fixed “as quickly as possible.”

In Washington, early in the day, the state Emergency Management Division began monitoring service problems with CenturyLink customers. Later, division staff began hearing reports that emergency call centers were having problems transferring calls among themselves, according to division director Robert Ezelle.

Division staff, when they realized the scope of the problems, contacted CenturyLink seeking more information, and issued a statewide alert around 11:30 p.m., Ezelle said. Some local jurisdictions also sent out alerts Thursday night.

CenturyLink updated the status of the outage through a series of Twitter posts, reporting that by about 12:30 p.m. Friday 911 service had been restored in all its service areas across the country. By 5:30 p.m. Friday, CenturyLink reported consumer services had been restored.

The disruptions affected calls from both landlines and cellphones, although some agencies were able to receive calls from one, but not the other, Ezelle said.

In Washington, by 7:30 a.m. Friday, all the 911 call centers could operate, according to Ezelle. But so long as CenturyLink continues to work on resolving service problems, he was unwilling to say that “we’re out of the woods.”

In Washington, CenturyLink is the provider of 911 services for the state’s 7.4 million residents, according to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. Washington emergency services are in the process of switching from CenturyLink to a new provider, Ezelle said.

In 2014, CenturyLink had a more than six-hour outage in Washington that “severely disrupted emergency services,” and affected all 911 calls placed from landline, wireless and Internet-based telephones. The state Utilities and Transportation Commission assessed a $2.85 million penalty for that service failure. The company admitted to failing to automatically reroute 911 calls and failing to maintain and manage the 911 system as required by law, according to a statement released by the commission.

A state investigation found that the 2014 outage, which also affected six other states, resulted from problems at a data center owned and managed by a CenturyLink vendor, Colorado-based Intrado.

In 2014, Intrado was Washington state’s primary manager of emergency calls, which meant that calls were routed through the Colorado operation, according to a stipulation of facts document filed with the state Public Utilities Commission.

Intrado had software with a preset call limit, which was reached on April 9, 2014. The Washington calls were then supposed to be switched to a Florida call center but that did not happen in a timely fashion, according to the stipulation document. During the outage, the CenturyLink system failed to route 5,684 calls to 911 call centers during the outage period.

The state commission also cited CenturyLink for a failure, during the 2014 service outage, to promptly notify 911 call-centers and the state commission about that outage.

More than 50 of Washington call centers learned of the outage from sources other than CenturyLink, according to the stipulation of fact document.

The agreement that the state reached with CenturyLink, after the 2014 service outage, calls for regular reporting to the commission about 911 circuit reliability.

In Washington, emergency services are currently switching from CenturyLink. The new system will be operated by Comtech Safety and Security Technologies, and the transition should be complete by December 2019, Ezelle said.

The decision to change contractors was not related to CenturyLink 911 outages, he said, but because of rules that required the department to rebid the contract. Ezelle said he is not aware of Comtech experiencing 911 outage issues, although some issues with Comtech were reported in Cincinnati last year.

Ezelle said the outage that occurred Thursday resulted from a very different problem than in 2014. Back then, an essential component of the 911 network failed to operate properly. This time around, the network did not fail, but CenturyLink’s ability to relay calls to the network did not work.

After the service outage hit Thursday, emergency service officials in Washington joined in conference calls with CenturyLink officials, Ezelle said.

So far, CenturyLink has not offered a detailed explanation about what network issues occurred, according to emergency officials in calls with the company.

“The hard part of these issues is we’re relying upon a vendor to provide the 911 service for us,” said Tim Hannah, assistant director of South Sound 911 technical services. “There’s nothing that any of our personnel can do to expedite or fix the problem. We’re relying on the 911 network to provide that service to us.”

As of late Friday morning, calls in King, Kitsap and Pierce counties were going through, but call centers and county officials said they couldn’t be sure systems were fully restored, as that depended on CenturyLink. The 911 outage did not affect Snohomish or Whatcom counties, according to the call centers’ social-media posts. In Bellingham, however, Western Washington University police lines were affected, as the department uses a different service from other law enforcement in the area, a WWU spokesman said.

The outage also affected fire-alarm systems for the Capitol campus buildings in Olympia, which were not connecting to the Fire Department, according to a statement from the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services. DES employees were performing fire watch Friday.

King County spokesman Cameron Satterfield said Friday morning that systems appeared to be working again, but they were still being tested to make sure everything was fixed.

Law-enforcement and county officials were advising residents to have alternate emergency numbers on hand just in case.

“Nobody wants to declare that we’re in the all-clear and everything is fine until we really do hear from CenturyLink and they’re confident their network is stable,” Ezelle said.

 

Heidi Groover contributed to this report.