Agency assures state senators that finding the cause of 911 outages is top priority

Dec. 7, 2023, 9:44 a.m. ·

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LINCOLN — Officials with a state telecommunications agency assured state senators Wednesday that their probe into recent outages of 911 services is a top priority.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission faced questions about the reliability of the emergency call system as it continues to probe a pair of 911 outages in the Omaha and Lincoln areas that occurred around Sept. 1 and another outage last week in Lincoln.

“It’s a major concern for us,” said Dan Watermeier, the chairman of the five-member PSC board.

But why has it taken so long, almost four months, to start getting answers, more than one state lawmaker asked during a briefing on Wednesday.

“It strikes me that this could happen again,” said State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha.

“When one fire can bring (911) down, we’re in trouble,” she added, referring to one outage caused by a fire and resulting failure of electrical backup systems at a facility in Lincoln.

Watermeier, a former state senator, and David Sankey, the 911 director for the PSC, said the probe is complicated, involving both a review of legal contracts with service providers and a look at whether it was an equipment problem.

“We know fiber optic lines are going to get cut (sometime),” Sankey said. “We need these (911) systems to be as redundant and robust as possible.”

The comments came during a morning briefing to the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee by members of the PSC, which handles broadband deployment as well as coordinating 911 services across the state.

Personal cell phones had to be used

The briefing got interesting when it turned to the recent 911 outages, which Sankey said were the most serious he’s seen in his seven years on the job.

In some cases, 911 operators had to use personal cell phones to call back those seeking emergency help. They could see the phone numbers of incoming calls but were blocked from answering them, he said.

  • On Aug. 31, Omaha-based Lumen reported two separate fiber optic lines had been accidentally cut in Minneapolis and in Omaha. That blocked calls from being received by more than half of the state’s 68, 911 centers for about 10 hours.
  • On Sept. 2, Lincoln-based Windstream reported that a fire in a switch center, followed by the failure of a backup generator as well as a battery system, shut down 911 service in Adams, Gage, Otoe and Saunders counties for several hours.
  • On Nov. 28, 911 services for several agencies, including the Lincoln Police Department, were disrupted for about an hour, according to Lincoln TV station KLKN.

Both the PSC and the Federal Communications Commission are investigating.

Sankey said that the state is in the process of switching over to a “next generation” 911 system that takes calls using internet protocols, which allow emergency calls to be made via text and permits transfer of photographs and videos. The new system will also be able to pinpoint the location of an emergency call, enabling rescuers to find someone even if they can’t provide that information.

Old routers possibly to blame for outages

Sankey said, not all telecommunications providers have installed new, internet protocol routing systems that provide a better connection to the newer 911 systems.

Older “selective routers,” he said, appear to have been “the potential point of failure” in the outages around Sept. 1. The 911 systems were working, but they couldn’t receive calls.

So far, Sankey said, only a handful of the 46 “connections” to the statewide 911 system have been upgraded to the newer routers.

“We need to get carriers off legacy routers,” he said.

Sankey added that many telecommunications providers are in the upgrade process but that it is an expensive switch and no legislation requires it. Some states have provided financial help to install the faster routers, he said, and it might be something Nebraska should consider.

The PSC, Sankey added, is working with the state’s 68 911 centers to make sure that if their system goes down, a neighboring 911 center can step in and take emergency calls.

Hearings announced

He said that public hearings on the outages should begin later this month — and just after Wednesday’s hearing, the PSC issued a press release announcing the first hearing on Dec. 20 at 9 a.m. to look into the Windstream outage.

A hearing into the Lumen outage is scheduled Jan. 4 at 9:30 a.m.

Both hearings will be held at the PSC’s offices at 200 N St., Suite 300, in Lincoln.

Sankey said the investigation should be completed later in 2024.

State Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus, who chairs the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said it appeared that any legislation, if needed to address the issue, would have to wait until after the PSC’s investigation is complete.