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What was behind the nationwide 911 outage?

The MN Department of Public Safety says initial investigation shows something went wrong with one of the vendors who work with CenturyLink, the state's 911 provider.

PLYMOUTH, Minnesota — Operations at the Hennepin County dispatch center located in Plymouth, Minnesota are back to normal today, but yesterday evening looked quite different.

"Yesterday we were notified about a 911 disruption or outage," Hennepin County Communications Director Tony Martin said. "We didn't know if it was originally just Hennepin County."

Quickly, it became evident that it wasn't just them. The problem was nationwide. 

"It was identified that we were starting to receive 911 calls -- I think it was within about half an hour of the notification to us -- and we were on calls and discussing with the state and CenturyLink and other 911 centers of the affected lines," Martin said. "So it was about half an hour we saw we were starting to receive 911 calls. We did notice there were some misroutes and that it was not 100%."

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety released this statement regarding their preliminary findings of the problem.

"The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Emergency Communication Networks division (DPS-ECN) is in contact with the state’s contracted 911 service provider, CenturyLink, to determine the cause behind a multi-state 911 outage on Sept. 28.

According to CenturyLink’s preliminary review, 135 calls to 24 Minnesota public safety answering points (PSAPs) failed to be routed during the 48-minute disruption. In its own preliminary review, DPS-ECN believes the outage was longer and that a number of 911 calls that failed to be routed were not included in the list.

While the reason for outage is still under investigation, CenturyLink says the problem originated on a partnering vendor’s platform when an internal networking component failed to correctly forward traffic. CenturyLink has said that the vendor is conducting an investigation of its own.

DPS-ECN will continue its work to determine the extent and reason of the outage.

Minnesota was among several states that reported a disruption to its 911 network. Other states include Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

Minnesota’s 102 dispatch centers statewide have received an average of 58,884 calls per week during the COVID-19 pandemic (March through September). DPS-ECN oversees the 911 program and is committed to ensuring that it remains a dependable method to call for help in an emergency.

'Simply put, calling 911 saves lives. This is why Emergency Communication Networks has made it a priority to maintain a dependable, state-of-the-art 911 system in Minnesota,' says DPS-ECN Director Dana Wahlberg. 'Alternate, 10-digit numbers for dispatch centers should only be used in the event of an outage.'

Minnesotans are encouraged to look up the 24-hour emergency number to their county’s 911 dispatch center. DPS-ECN recommends saving the number in your cell phone, or writing it down and placing it next to your landline. You can find a list of alternate numbers on this webpage."

Many public safety agencies pushed residents to call a 10-digit non-emergency number if they needed help.

"It is a lesson learned," Martin said. "If you don't have that I would really reinforce it because you might not always be notified that 911 isn't working. You might be the first caller that we don't even know that there's an issue yet."

When asked why it was on the public to store an alternative number, Martin made note of the amazing progress technology has made in our society. He added that sometimes it is unreliable.

"Technology can fail at times," he said. "Especially the old landline, the copper wire telephone to telephone, that's a thing of the past. I think... is this the one thing that technology has surpassed us? I don't know."

Martin added that even for him, last night's outage was scary.

"That's kind of your last call for help that a lot of people believe -- that (if) they need police, fire, ambulance, we train people at a young age to call 911," he said. "The fact that that (was) no longer available -- it's a scary thought."

So to protect yourself, he recommends at least knowing the non-emergency line to one police department, if and when this happens again.

"I hope we never have to use that backup, but as we saw yesterday, we might have that in the future as well," he said.

As for what exactly caused the outage, individual agencies like Hennepin County aren't privy to that information given that this was a nationwide problem. However, the MN DPS officials say they are investigating, along with CenturyLink, the state's 911 service provider. 

On Tuesday in a tweet, the commissioner of the FCC asked for efforts to get to the bottom of the outage.

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