Emails suggest city officials struggled with how to tell public 911 was down
City officials quickly decided to use the 311 call center as an alternative but debated for at least a half hour how to let the public know about the problems
By Ian Duncan and Tim Prudente
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Baltimore emergency management officials scrambled to figure out how to notify the public that the city's 911 system was out of service Tuesday night, according to internal emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
City officials quickly decided to use the 311 call center as an alternative but debated for at least a half hour how to let the public know about the problems, according to emails forwarded to a reporter by Robert Maloney, director of the office.
A Fire Department spokesman said Wednesday that the emails did not reflect all of the city's efforts to handle the problem, and officials followed an existing plan to address the outage. At a news conference, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis defended the city's response to the problem, which lasted nearly two hours.
"We just came together and did the very best we could to ensure the interruption was as brief as possible," he said.
Police and fire officials said they acted quickly after receiving notifications the system was down. They gathered in a room at police headquarters and 911 operators began taking 311 calls. Officials could not say how many 911 calls were diverted to 311 or whether response times were delayed.
"We're still developing the timelines, looking at the calls for service that came in after, calls for service before. Was there a surge when 911 was backed up, for instance?" Davis said.
Officials at Verizon — the service provider for the city's 911 system — said the phone company received an automated alert at 7:48 p.m. reporting that 911 calls were failing. Verizon spokesman John O'Malley said the company eventually determined that emergency calls were mistakenly routed to an empty back-up call center in the city.
"Technically the calls were coming in, but they were getting routed to a location where no one was there to pick up," O'Malley said.
Instead, calls to 911 were answered with a recorded message: "Baltimore City emergency center, all operators are busy. Your call will be answered in turn. Please do not hang up."
At 8:19 p.m. acting 911 director Capt. Scott Brillman sent an email: "Just was notified system is down. VERIZON is working on the issue ... Will have an update shortly."
Three minutes later, Maloney replied, "Agencies need to immediately implement back up plans and notify media what number to call."
City officials proposed several ways to alert residents before eventually calling media outlets around 9 p.m. and asking them to share the news. The Fire Department called The Baltimore Sun by 8:45 p.m. Tweets from official city accounts followed, and state emergency officials sent a notice to the media about the problem.
"The Baltimore city 911 system cannot receive incoming calls at this time," the statement read. "Any citizen needing emergency services should call 311."
Those on the email chain had run through possible options — including wondering if the Federal Emergency Management Agency would send an alert using a system it uses for warnings about tornadoes and child abductions. Federal authorities did not issue the alert, state spokesman Chas Eby said Wednesday.
Officials also discussed whether calls could be routed to Baltimore County; if police and firefighters should take to the streets to be flagged down in case of emergencies; or if the National Weather Service could be drafted to help.
Capt. Roman Clark, the Fire Department spokesman, said those on the email chain were not decision makers and other steps that were being taken to address the problems are not reflected in the messages. He called the debate over the best way to notify people "options that were being transferred back and forth."
"We followed the policy and then once we realized it was something that was catastrophic, we had to make other arrangements," he said.
On Wednesday, Verizon was still trying to determine what caused its equipment to send calls to the wrong center. The 311 system works on technology similar to 911's but was not affected. O'Malley said that it's unusual for a jurisdiction to have an entire back-up center and that Verizon had not experienced a similar problem in the past.
"This is the first time we've seen something like this happen," he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake complimented the Police and Fire departments for continuing to provide service during the outage.
"I just want to thank my team for working so swiftly on a situation that could have brought a large degree of panic around the city," the mayor said.
In October, the Police and Fire departments took charge of the 911 system after concerns about poor service while the mayor's information technology office was running it. Davis said Tuesday's interruption was not related to the switch between agencies.
"That does not appear to be related to that at all," he said. "We're still troubleshooting with Verizon. We expect to have some more concrete answers in the days ahead."
A Fire Department official said the city has had smaller interruptions to service in the past but didn't provide details, and data on previous outages was not available. The Federal Communications Commission collects information on major disruptions to 911 systems, but the reports it gathers are treated as confidential.
Scott Roper, executive director of the Emergency Number Systems Board, a state agency, said through a spokesman that the board does not systematically track outages. It investigates major problems, Roper said, but he knew of none that previously affected Baltimore.
Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, said major outages are sometimes caused by work crews damaging a line or a problem with electronics or software — but are unusual.
"It's not an everyday occurrence by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Police and Fire departments around the country are slowly switching over to internet-based systems for handling emergency calls, known a Next Generation 911. The new systems would potentially let residents send text messages or video directly to first responders.
Fontes said during an outage, a jurisdiction using an internet-enabled setup could establish a virtual call center as a fallback.
"In today's world, most of 911 is tethered to last-century technology," Fontes said. "We need to ensure that our 911 centers are Next Generation compliant."
But the FCC has warned that new systems bring reliability problems of their own. In April 2014, 911 services failed for six hours in seven states because of a software problem at a facility in Colorado. The entire state of Washington was left without access to 911 and more than 11 million Americans had, at best, only spotty service, FCC investigators concluded. Phone companies, including Verizon, paid out more than $20 million to settle allegations arising from the FCC's probe.
The FCC investigators warned that the problem was not an isolated incident and showed how issues with internet-based systems had the potential to spread quickly.
Copyright 2016 The Baltimore Sun