FCC Reports That 911 Outage In April Was The Result Of A Preventable Coding Error

On April 9, 911 services were interrupted for six hours which affected areas in California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina while the entire state of Washington was affected. A 911 call-routing facility, located in Englewood, Colorado, had stopped directing emergency calls to 911 call centers, 81 in total, in those states. However, according to the Federal Communications Commission, the cause for the 911 outage was a preventable coding error.

Intrado, the routing facility in Colorado, was affected by what was called a “sunny day” outage that, according to the report, affected 11 million people and prevented over 6,600 calls to 911.The  calls were not properly routed to emergency responders due to a bug in the software. Rather than providing unique IDs to 911 callers, the software started counting them in one large set. Once a pre-determined limit was reached for the set, the calls stopped going through and, because of the coding error, the system failed to recognize that there was a problem.

“So-called 'sunny day' outages are on the rise,” the report states. “That’s because, as 911 has evolved into a system that is more technologically advanced, the interaction of new and old systems is introducing fragility into the communications system that is more important in times of dire need.”

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The FCC discovered, with the help of “confidential reports, public comments, and related documents” that such an occurrence could have been fixed almost as soon as the outage had begun. However, failure to swiftly identify the problem negated Intrado’s redundant hub in Miami until six hours later. Service was immediately restored when the problem was finally noticed.

According to the FCC, the “sunny day” issue is not a unique problem and is due to companies trying to mesh a dated emergency infrastructure with new technology. With the inclusion of ever-changing and new technologies, both 911 centers and carriers might be taking shortcuts when it comes to setting up their emergency systems.

The report went on to say that, “The April 2014 multistate outage was far more than a simple software error on an otherwise uneventful spring evening in Englewood, Colorado. It was a vivid example of the vulnerabilities that IP-supported architectures may present, without sufficient network safeguards and clear lines of accountability. The issues raised in the outage go to the heart of providing reliable 911 service. Regardless of what party implements a particular component of 911 service, there must be network reliability and clear accountability from call placement to call completion.”