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

911 Outage
Posted at 7:33 PM, Apr 18, 2024

Workers installing a light pole in Kansas City, 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 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, Missouri, 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 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, home to Omaha and more than a quarter of Nebraska's residents, officials first learned there was a problem when calls from certain cellphone companies showed up in a system that maps calls but didn't go through over the phone. Operators started calling back anyone whose call didn't go through, and officials reached out to Lumen, which confirmed the outage. Service was restored by 4 a.m.

Kyle Kramer, the technical manager for Douglas County's 911 Center, said the outage highlights the potential problems of having so many calls go over the same network.

“As things become more interconnected in our modern world, whether you’re on a wireless device or a landline now, those are no longer going over the traditional old copper phone wires that may have different paths in different areas,” Kramer said. “Large networks usually have some aggregation point, and those aggregation points can be a high risk.”

Kramer said this incident and the two previous 911 outages he has seen in the past year in Omaha make him concerned that communications companies aren't building enough redundancy into their networks.

“I would hope that all of the telcos would put as much effort as possible into making sure they do diversify as much as they can to try and avoid this,” Kramer said.

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety said in a statement 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, service was restored.

Officials in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 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 also 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, it said service was restored and everyone who called during the outage had received assistance.

Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics, said the depth of buried fiber lines varies greatly. In some places, often in neighborhoods, that can be just a few inches, while elsewhere they can be much deeper.

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

Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, said 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 to better withstand disasters and cyberattacks.

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

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

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Brumfield reported from Washington, D.C., Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska, and Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri.