State agency to probe why 911 network backup systems failed to work

Lack of required ‘redundancy’ after two outages last week raise concerns about reliability of Nebraska emergency lines

By: - September 5, 2023 5:09 pm

Unusual “twin” outages at 911 centers in Nebraska occurred over the Labor Day weekend. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comment from Lumen.

LINCOLN — A state agency is digging into why backup procedures failed to work after emergency 911 networks across Nebraska went down last week.

David Sankey, the 911 director for the Nebraska Public Service Commission, said Tuesday he has questions for both Omaha-based Lumen and Lincoln-based Windstream about why required “redundancy” in their 911 systems failed.

It’s critical, Sankey said, that emergency calls can get through to responders.

“When our citizens need emergency help, we want the system to be working all the time so they can get the help they need,” he said.

Rare, twin outages

Officials said they could not recall when two 911 systems failed in the same general time frame, and when the failures involved such a wide area.

Nemaha County Sheriff Brent Lottman, who leads a group of 11 southeast Nebraska counties that cooperate on 911 services, said Tuesday that he wants to know why he could continue to call his neighbors but not 911 during the outage in his area.

State Sen. Mike Moser
State Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

And State Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus, who heads the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said it will be important for state lawmakers to learn whether state laws need to be changed to avoid such outages in the future.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates telecommunications companies, said that on Thursday at 7:05 p.m., Lumen reported an outage caused by two separate fiber cuts to its network in the Omaha area by two different contractors.

That outage, which impacted 39 of the state’s 68 911 centers, continued until 5:30 a.m. Friday, when service was restored.

Then, about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Windstream reported a disruption in service caused by a fire at one of its switch centers, which resulted in 911 service being down until early Sunday morning in Adams, Gage, Otoe and Saunders Counties.

A Windstream spokesman said that after the power went out, the company switched to an onsite generator, but that generator eventually stopped working.

Generator, then batteries, failed

The company then switched to battery power, but after a while, the batteries dropped to “dangerously low voltage levels,” according to spokesman Scott Morris. A decision was made to shut down one of the three switches operated out of the center, which caused the disruption in the four counties.

Sankey said he specifically wants to know why there wasn’t redundancy in Lumen’s 911 services and why backup options in the Windstream system failed.

The expectation, he said, is that if a fiber line is cut, calls can be rerouted to other lines or to other 911 centers.

A Lumen spokesman, in an additional email Tuesday evening, said the two cuts prevented the built-in redundancy in their network from working as designed.

“We did manually reroute calls for many of the impacted (911 centers),” said the spokesman, Mark Molzen.

The Lumen outage impacted the Omaha metropolitan area, as well as communities along the Platte River and Interstate 80, including Fremont, Kearney, Grand Island and North Platte.

Both Sankey and Lottman said they were unaware of any problems, such as a tardy response to an emergency, caused by the two outages. Sankey praised 911 center employees for quickly getting the word out about the outages and providing alternative phone numbers to call.

Sen. Moser said, however, that any time 911 response centers are down, it’s a serious matter.

Sankey said the elected commissioners of the Public Service Commission, at a meeting next week, are expected to formally approve an investigation into the outages and the failure of backup options.

Moser said lawmakers will wait for the results of that probe before deciding whether any changes in state laws need to be considered.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.