Sound the Alarm on 911 Failures

August 30, 2016
By: Doug Mohney

The District of Columbia – the Nation’s Capital – lost 911 services for more than 90 minutes between late Saturday evening, Aug. 27 and Sunday morning, Aug. 28.  It is the second 911 outage in the region in the past two months and augers a larger problem.  Citizens assume 911 will always be available in an emergency, but governments and service providers are increasingly failing to deliver this mission critical service we all take for granted.  

 “Officials are at a loss for explanation for 90-minute outage in 911 service,” reads the story headline buried on page four of the August 25, 2016 Washington Post. District of Columbia officials ruled out the possibility of the outage being caused by a computer hacker or malicious act. The latest word as of this evening, Aug. 29, is an engineer hit the power panic stop button due to a water leak, but the backup systems didn’t kick in when the primary was shut down.  Apparently, someone didn’t design and/or test the system to a level of fault tolerance required for a public safety service.

Neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland’s 911 services went out for around two hours last month, on July 10.  Two people died during the two hours of the outage and the country is still looking into if those deaths could have been prevented if the service had been operational.  Cause of the July 10 outage is attributed to a cascade of problems, triggered by an old air conditioning unit low on refrigerant and without a backup. The AC was designed to keep the backup batteries cool, so when it went down, the 911 system went to standard grid power.  When the grid power hiccupped, the system went into protective shutdown, according to press reports.

To add insult to injury, Sprint (News - Alert) cellular and some wireline customers in Montgomery County, several counties in Northern Virginia and DC lost access to 911 service on Aug. 16 due to loss of power at a Sprint facility. Service was down for over 10 hours for some customers.

This fall, the nation will observe the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Are the residents of the Washington D.C. area safer now than 15 years ago? The recent rash of 911 service failures distributed across Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, all due to different circumstances, suggests no, with the root cause a mixture of insufficient design and testing of fault tolerant systems.

I’d like to say D.C. was unique, but consider the headline out of Wyoming’s Teton Valley News: “Raccoon causes County 911 failure.”  The critter, not known to be an associate of ISIS, climbed into a transformer and shorted it out on the early morning of Aug. 1, causing a power failure that shut down Teton County’s 911 service for six hours.  Neighboring counties were able to pick up the load, but the ease by which a wayward animal could take down mission critical service should be unsettling. 

What if someone wanted to intentionally shut down 911? Consider cyberattacks, denial of service (DOS) and all-too-real incidents of “SWATting,” making false 911 calls describing a volatile situation to get an armed police response to an unsuspecting innocent household.  So far, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC (News - Alert)) seems to be stuck in business as usual mode and the best advice the D.C. media is giving in case of a future 911 failure is “Try a different phone number/carrier, memorize alternative non-emergency numbers in case of emergency, and try texting if you are in certain counties that support it.” Hopefully, we’ll see a more proactive approach to fixing 911 service reliability before there’s a major disaster.




Edited by Alicia Young