Light pole installation hits fiber line, knocks out 911 service in several states

Monitors on a wall.
A monitor shows the number of active calls at the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center in St. Paul on Oct. 21.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

Workers installing a light pole in Missouri cut into a fiber line, knocking out 911 service for emergency agencies in Nebraska, Nevada and South Dakota, an official with the company that operates the fiber line said Thursday.

Problems with 911 calls in a Texas city along the U.S. border with Mexico were unrelated, officials said, but the widespread outage created concerns about what was causing the problems.

For most agencies, it turned out to be the result of simple human error.

In Kansas City, Mo., workers installing a light pole for another company Wednesday cut into a Lumen Technologies fiber line, Lumen global issues director Mark Molzen said in an email to The Associated Press. Service was restored within 2 1/2 hours, he said. There were no reports of 911 outages in Kansas City.

Meanwhile, the difficulties some cellphone callers experienced making 911 calls in in Del Rio, Texas, were apparently because of an outage involving a cellular carrier, not the city’s 911 system, city spokesman Peter Ojeda said. Lumen is not a 911 service provider for Texas.

Federal officials were looking into the outage.

“When you call 911 in an emergency, it is vital that call goes through. The FCC has already begun investigating the 911 multi-state outages that occurred last night to get to the bottom of the cause and impact,” Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which houses the National 911 Program, said in a statement that its Office of Emergency Medical Services “is monitoring this issue.”

The outages created confusion for some people trying to reach emergency agencies.

The Dundy County Sheriff’s Office in Nebraska warned in a social media post Wednesday night that 911 callers would receive a busy signal and urged people to instead call the administrative phone line. About three hours later, officials said mobile and landline 911 services had been restored.

In Douglas County, Nebraska, home to Omaha and more than a quarter of the state’s residents, 911 Director Kathy Allen said Lumen informed the agency at 1:42 a.m. Thursday that service was restored, but the county “did experience a few more issues.” Service was fully restored by 4 a.m., Allen said in a statement.

Cut fiber lines and other problems have caused 911 outages in recent years in Nebraska. The issue was worrisome enough that the Nebraska Public Service Commission hosted a hearing on the topic in December.

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety said in statement posted on social media Wednesday night that the 911 service interruption occurred throughout the state. The agency noted that texting to 911 was working in most locations and people could still reach local law enforcement through non-emergency lines. Less than two hours later, the agency said service was restored.

Officials in Sioux Falls, S.D., said during a news conference Thursday that the outage was unprecedented.

“To our knowledge, we have never experienced an outage of this magnitude or duration,” Assistant Fire Chief Mike Gramlick said.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department 911 Communications warned Wednesday evening of an outage affecting 911 and non-emergency calls in a social media post. Calls from landlines were not working, but officials said they could see the numbers of those who called from cellphones.

“Dial on a mobile device, and we will be able to see your number and will call you back right away,” the department posted.

About two hours later, the department posted that service was restored, and everyone who called during the outage had been called back and provided assistance.

Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics, said the depth of buried fiber lines varies greatly. In some places — often in neighborhoods — the line may be just a few inches (centimeters) deep. Elsewhere, it might be buried much deeper.

Entner said he was surprised by the outage because it is common to have “redundant lines,” meaning that if one line is damaged, a backup line will continue to carry the service.

Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, said in a statement that the outage highlights the importance of congressional funding to update critical telecommunications services.

The threat to connectivity is exacerbated in the current environment “where specialized 9-1-1 trunks and selective routers create single points of failure,” Fontes said in a statement. He urged Congress to fund an upgraded system built to better withstand disasters and cyberattacks.

In Del Rio, a city of 35,000 residents, police on Wednesday posted that “an outage with a major cellular carrier” was to blame. Del Rio had the opposite problem of Las Vegas — 911 calls from cellphones didn’t work, so those needing help were urged to use a landline or another cell carrier.

The outages, ironically, occurred in the midst of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

Volume Button
Volume
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News