Dispatch Down: City of Tucson working to make sure 911 call system doesn’t fail again

911 outage system crash silenced dispatch phones

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Imagine calling 911 for help and hearing a busy signal on the other end of the line.

That was the reality Tuesday morning in Tucson and Pima County.

The City of Tucson reported the regional 911 system experienced a ‘significant outage’ in both its primary and backup systems around 3:00 a.m.

The emergency system tracks calls to dispatch a response for the Tucson Police and Fire Departments, as well as University of Arizona Police, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Northwest Fire District, Golder Ranch Fire District, and other 911 emergency operations management partners.

“One of the first things we do is find out is this the phone, is it the dispatching system, is this the radio and then do some test calls which they did immediately," said Chris Conger, the Public Safety Communications Department Deputy Director. “They found out that regardless if this was landline or cell phone, nothing was going through to 911, it went to a fast, busy signal.”

During a phone call Tuesday evening, Conger told KOLD News 13 this was the first time the regional 911 call system had ever failed.

“Quickly staff realized that we had an issue that was pretty big," said Conger. "We called over to the county and realized they were dealing with the same issues at the same time.”

Conger said the city has an agreement with Pima County to use their system as a backup, but that was not a possibility Tuesday morning because it was going through the same problem.

“I knew that people were having emergencies. It was still three o’clock in the morning, but it doesn’t matter what time, people have emergencies," said Travis Brown, the Communications Supervisor on shift when the calls were dropped.

Brown said employees are trained to respond if a situation like a system failure occurred. The region’s 911 public safety partners reached out immediately to their contracted system service provider, CenturyLink.

While the back-up system was also down, Brown said he and other supervisors followed the response plan to alert administration and create a short-term solution.

“We were able to set up a ten-digit phone number for the public to call and get that out to the PIO’s so we could help those people having emergencies," said Brown.

Along with social media, Conger said an “on-call” was sent out to agencies to let them know about the issue.

According to a press release, partner jurisdictions began to get service back at different times over the next hour, with the City of Tucson and Pima County restoring service around 4:25 a.m.

CenturyLink reported all issues related to the outage were completely resolved by 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Conger said a preliminary report showed about 10 missed calls to the city during the outage. He said employees made contact with those callers for information and learn of the outcome.

Brown was proud of the way his team was able to respond.

“They are the true first responders for the City of Tucson and the surrounding counties," said Brown. "They take the worst calls everyday, but truly they were professional and handled it greatly.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, city and county agencies were awaiting results and a report from CenturyLink.

“What do we do to prevent this in the future? We rely heavily on CenturyLink for that," said Conger. "We’re not, we don’t maintain the network, we don’t have much control over that, except for being a customer of theirs.”

KOLD News 13 reached out to the company. A CenturyLink spokesperson provided this information about the outage:

"On July 9, some customers in Pima County, AZ experienced disruptions to 911 service due to a technical issue. A repair team was dispatched, and all services are restored.

Based on information currently available, the outage started at approximately 3 a.m. and lasted approximately an hour and half. The cause is under investigation."

Conger said the city plans to meet with CenturyLink officials next week. The director hopes to get an answer as to what happened and to learn a solution to make sure it never happens again.

The 911 emergency call system is fully functioning and operational. Please call 911 if you have an emergency.

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