911: Not a Joke in Your Town

 Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives. Licensed CC-BY.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives. Licensed CC-BY.

Washington State’s Emergency 911 service was down for approximately seven hours early Thursday morning, April 10th and currently no one is explaining why. CenturyLink issued a brief media alert on Friday morning stating that services have been restored and that they were continuing to investigate but then later that day issued an even shorter alert:

The 911 outage which occurred in Washington on April 19th was not related to CenturyLink’s network, but due to a technical error by a third-party vendor. The vendor worked with our team to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

Was CenturyLink effectively saying it wasn’t their fault and that their investigation was concluded? I contacted Sigfred “Ziggy” Dahl in hopes of getting more details. Mr. Dahl is the manager of the Enhanced 911 Office and Homeland Security Unit at the Emergency Management Division. He’s held that position since August of last year, getting promoted after 70% of the office staff moved on to other endeavors.

His office should know what vendors have critical access to the system. But Mr. Dahl sent me an email Friday night at 8pm telling me, “Unfortunately, no. We do not know any more than you do at this point.”

The long list of questions I haven’t found anyone willing to answer includes:

  • Are there other third-party vendors who could possibly bring the whole system down? What was the work the vendor was doing?
  • Was it related to the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug that was widely publicized this week?
  • Did CenturyLink know this work was being performed and that the whole system could go down for seven hours if something went wrong?
  • Why didn’t any of the redundant backup systems work?

Robert Ezelle, the director of Washington State Emergency Management has stated, “Washington State’s E911 system belongs to all of us, and we count on it to work throughout the state.” Can we?

During the outage, the local media and citizens of the internet passed around a list of non-911 numbers that were working. I recommend you write down the one for your county just in case.

  • Chelan County: 509-663-9911
  • Clallam County: 360-417-4970
  • Clark County: 360-696-4461
  • Cowlitz County: 360-577-3098
  • Douglas County: 509-663-9911
  • Grays Harbor County: 360-533-7880
  • East King County (Bellevue area) : 425-577-5656
  • King County Sheriff: 206-296-3311
  • Lewis County: 360-740-1105
  • Mason County: 360-427-7761
  • North Pacific County: 360-875-9397
  • North Snohomish County: 425-407-3970
  • Pierce County Sheriff: 253-798-4722
  • Pierce Couty Fire/Medic: 253-588-5217
  • South Snohomish County: 425-775-4545
  • Skagit County: 360-336-3131
  • South King County (Kent area): 253-852-2121
  • Thurston County: 360-704-2740
  • South Pacific County: 360-642-9397
  • Whatcom County: 360-676-6911

Chip Phillips is an IT consultant based in the Seattle area.