The state is awaiting results of an investigation into the cause of an unusual 911 outage during a storm that struck Monday night, Nov. 30, into Tuesday, Dec. 1.
Questions remain about the unprecedented outage and the communications that followed from the center that provides emergency dispatch services for Portland, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth.
During the Nov. 30 outage, the Portland Regional Communications Center was unable to receive emergency calls for about 15 minutes. A root cause of the failure has not been identified.
Although the problem was resolved within 15 minutes, some residents did not receive an alert about it until an hour after it occurred. And it remained unclear who received the alerts.
According to Maria Jacques, director of the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s Emergency Services Communications Bureau, the problem began at approximately 9:34 p.m. and was resolved at 9:49 p.m.
Jacques said she does not know if a mistake made by telecommunications provider Consolidated Communications, the state’s contractor for 911 services, played a role because the cause is still under investigation.
The CodeRED system used to send emergency communications to residents, she noted, is run by the Portland Police Department, not by her department or Consolidated Communications.
Consolidated oversees the state’s network and controls the 911 call-handling equipment, which routes calls to databases. It is also in charge of monitoring and maintenance of the equipment.
Maine’s contract with Consolidated was established in 2014 with FairPoint Communications and was moved to Consolidated when that company acquired FairPoint in 2017.
FairPoint Communications’ presence in Maine was established in 2007 when Verizon sold the North Carolina-based company its residential telephone business in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont for $2.7 billion.
This is not the first time a network the company is responsible for has dropped 911 calls. According to Vermont Public Radio, last year Consolidated agreed to upgrade its network to avoid repeated equipment failures that disrupted Vermont’s 911 service three times in three years.
The state of Vermont opened an investigation into its 911 problems after service was disrupted in January 2016. During the investigation, two other incidents occurred that affected 911 service.
A technical consultant found equipment failure was partially responsible for the issues.
“Consolidated takes access to 911 and providing service to our customers very seriously, and we continuously review our network design to ensure the highest level of access to 911,” Consolidated representative Shannon Sullivan said about the Portland outage in a Dec. 7 email. “In collaboration with our equipment vendor, we are actively investigating the incident to identify the exact cause and work to ensure an interruption does not occur in the future.”
Jacques said contractors typically have only five business days to provide an explanation after an outage, but more time may be allowed depending on the complexity of the investigation. “Our most important concern is correctly identifying the problem,” she said. “(And) once it is provided to us, we may request additional information.”
Andrew Dziegielewski, emergency communications director for the Portland Regional Communications Center, said his office followed procedure when the outage occurred, which is to contact Consolidated.
Dziegielewski said Consolidated acted “very quickly,” and his office also worked with other Cumberland County public safety answering points, or PSAPs, to get the word out that the system “was not working accordingly.”
Additionally, he said his office sent out a notification to the community of the issue via the CodeRED alert system at approximately 9:30 p.m. No 911 calls were missed during the period the system was down, he said, because calls were forwarded to a backup data center in Augusta.
“We did receive a list of numbers that possibly weren’t answered,” Dziegielewski said via email Dec. 7. “We called the handful of numbers with all calls being answered on that night.”
More than one resident told the Phoenix, however, that they did not receive a call on their landline about the service disruption until after 10:30 p.m., nearly an hour after the 911 system was working again. The call alerted them of the issue and told them to call a different number instead of 911 if they had an emergency.
CodeRED is a third-party tool used by public safety agencies to alert residents in a specific area if there is an emergency.
Dziegielewski said “it’s not surprising” that some people received late calls.
“Our jurisdiction is Portland, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth so when that message goes out and hits everyone it will take time to circulate through all the numbers,” he said.
Residents must sign up for the CodeRED alerts on the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency website, where in addition to automated calls, they are able to select an option to receive alerts via text message.
The Cumberland County public safety website says the system used to notify citizens depends on the nature of an emergency, and in addition to the CodeRED Emergency Notification system, citizens could also be notified of emergencies using the Emergency Alert System, Wireless Emergency Alerts, or the National Oceanic, Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio.
The website notes “no system is 100-percent fail-safe and able to deliver notices to the entire population at the same time.”
“Therefore, depending on the speed, location, and severity of the emergency, one or more tools may be used to warn the public,” it states.
The site also says while Cumberland County “provides the means for notification, it is the responsibility of the public to become familiar with the tools available and use the ones that will be best for them to receive emergency information.”
Dziegielewski said social media was most helpful in relaying information about the Nov. 30 incident, and noted his office created a Facebook page in the last three weeks.
Jacques said via email Dec. 4 it is unclear what role, if any, rainy and windy weather played in the outage, but it is known that an “electrical problem in downtown Portland at that time caused many calls to the Portland 911 center at the same time.”
Dziegielewski said it was a “total anomaly” that the outage occurred, and even during large storms in the past, using a different 911 system, his office has never encountered such an issue.
Similarly, Jacques said outages that impact the ability for callers to reach 911 are “extremely rare,” although it has happened before in Maine. She also said the state is focused on ensuring a similar outage does not happen again in the future.
“The (Public Utilities Commission) is committed to discovering the root cause of this interruption to 911 services and the necessary remediation to prevent its recurrence,” she said.