The console screen at the Whidbey Health Emergency Service station in Bayview tracks all active calls. EMS personnel say the system “didn’t miss a beat” when the dispatch center in Oak Harbor was unable to process 9-1-1 calls last week.

The console screen at the Whidbey Health Emergency Service station in Bayview tracks all active calls. EMS personnel say the system “didn’t miss a beat” when the dispatch center in Oak Harbor was unable to process 9-1-1 calls last week.

9-1-1 outage hits Whidbey, service back to normal

Island County’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch system is back to normal operation after an outage at the end of last week.

“We were affected just like everyone else,” said Tom Shaughnessy, director of the county’s Emergency Services Communications Center.

An apparent failure in the CenturyLink phone switching system knocked out 9-1-1 dispatch service in Western Washington and other parts of the nation Thursday and Friday.

“CenturyLink sent an e-mail on Thursday, saying a problem appeared to be developing,” said Shaughnessy. “As soon as our dispatchers stopped getting calls, they confirmed the problem by contacting Skagit and Snohomish centers. Our toll free 10-digit local lines continued to work fine. Those lines are not part of the integrated national system. But because 9-1-1 is connected nationally, we were affected locally and not able to process those calls.”

Both Shaughnessy and Island County Emergency Management Director Eric Brooks said they are not aware of any problems relating to unanswered calls.

For the first time, cell phone users in Washington were notified by a new system which enables authorities to send messages to every phone in specified areas. The emergency alert read: “Widespread 911 outage in WA. In case of emergency, call local police or fire department.”

Brooks said Emergency Management sent notices by social media and email. Automated messages were sent to as many traditional land-based telephones as the office could identify. Island residents can ensure they receive emergency messages by signing up through the Office of Emergency Management, www.islandcountywa.gov/DEM/Pages/Home.aspx

The Island County Sheriff’s Office also posted a notice on its Facebook page.

Emergency Management was in constant contact with law enforcement, fire and health authorities and was prepared to escalate if necessary. “There was no cause for undue concern, and all of our processes worked the way they should,” said Brooks.

All services from the major telecommunications companies serving Whidbey – Whidbey Telecom, Frontier, DishTV and Comcast – operated normally throughout the emergency dispatch failure.

When the integrated national system is operating properly, 9-1-1 calls from one location are actually routed through one of several connecting phone switches at another location instantaneously. For example, calls from Whidbey usually go through a CenturyLink connection in the Seattle area but could even be routed to a more distant switch.

Government officials have launched investigations of the 9-1-1 service disruption. Calling the outage “completely unacceptable,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the “breadth and duration are particularly troubling.”

State Utilities and Transportation Commission Regulatory Services Director Mark Vasconi said his office continues to watch developments.

Without elaboration, CenturyLink officials say the outage does not appear related to hacking. The telecommunications company, based in Monroe, La., is one of the largest in the United States, providing service in most states and interconnecting in all others. Outages in the 9-1-1 system were reported from coast-to-coast.

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