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Originally published Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 6:59 PM

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CenturyLink service glitch blocks 911 calls

During what CenturyLink calls an “intermittent interruption,” for which the cause was not immediately known, Washington state residents dialing 911 centers in the early hours Thursday may have been met with a sped-up busy signal.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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State emergency officials want to learn about — and see corrected — a CenturyLink service glitch that, for hours early Thursday, blocked calls to 911 centers across the state.

During what CenturyLink calls an “intermittent interruption,” for which the cause was not immediately known, people dialing 911 centers may have received only a sped-up busy signal.

“If you’re in a lifesaving situation, every minute that goes by is important,” said Mark Stewart, spokesman for the state’s Emergency Operations Center, which is in contact with CenturyLink to learn more about the problem.

Stewart said that when a 911 service is not working, people need to call regular 10-digit numbers for the emergency agencies that serve their area.

That might mean finding a phone book and looking up a number in an emergency situation, Stewart said. And some people, such as those living in county fire districts, might not even be sure which agency to call.

“That’s precious time that could potentially impact someone’s health or public safety,” Stewart said.

Jan Kampbell, CenturyLink’s spokeswoman for Western Washington, agreed.

“This is very serious. Our customers’ safety is our top priority,” Kampbell said. “I haven’t heard of this happening before. And I’ve been with CenturyLink for many years.”

She said a team of technicians was working on the problem.

The difficulty was discovered about 1 a.m. The first calls to the state emergency center came at 1:09 a.m. from Lewis County dispatchers who reported 911 outages in Lewis, Thurston and Clark counties, Stewart said.

State operators then began checking with nearby counties, and at the same time, were hearing from other counties experiencing trouble.

The problem affected dozens of emergency agencies because their services are linked. Service was reported restored to all agencies about 8 a.m.

A separate and apparently unrelated problem interrupted 911 service in parts of Oregon.

In Seattle, callers to police and fire services began telling dispatchers, even before 1 a.m., that they had been unable to get through by dialing 911, said Capt. Dick Reed, director of the 911 Center for the Seattle Police Department.

Some callers said that when they dialed 911, they got what’s called a “fast-busy” signal, a rapidly paced version of the busy signal that can indicate the call cannot be completed because of a technical problem.

Within minutes of the time the outage was noted, Reed said, the Seattle center was able to switch to a lower-tech, backup service using phone handsets and business lines.

“In Seattle, we were fortunate that people who called 911 were actually getting through,” Reed said. But the backup system doesn’t offer “enhanced 911” features, such as providing instant information on the caller’s location.

Full service on the enhanced 911 system was restored in Seattle shortly before 7 a.m., Reed said.

During the service interruption, some agencies advised people with emergencies to use their cellphones, which sometimes work better than landlines on 911 calls.

Marlys Davis of the King County Office of Emergency Management said that agency will confer with CenturyLink about how to prevent this from happening again.

There are fewer 911 calls overnight, she said, but added, “sometimes those can be the most critical calls.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2222



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