Officials Grappling with Latest 911 Lapses

Penobscot County emergency calls are routed to a backup as a third system failure in Maine weakens public confidence.


 
 

David Hench | | Wednesday, June 18, 2008


PENOBSCOT COUNTY, Maine -- Penobscot County's emergency dispatch center experienced a series of malfunctions over the weekend, becoming the state's third system to break down in as many months.

Cumberland County and the state Department of Public Safety had to contend with breakdowns earlier this spring.

The failures, which involve a particular type of 911 answering system, have frustrated and puzzled public safety officials, technicians and FairPoint Communications, which inherited the systems when it bought Verizon's telephone network in northern New England in March.

The recurring problem also weakens faith in a system that often is the lifeline between people in emergencies and the rescue workers they need.

Most systems in the state run on different technology and are not affected, but the problems are generating concern nevertheless.

''We're assured the problems are limited to those (few) systems, and that the majority of those of us that have the other type of system don't have to worry about it,'' said Sonia Moeller, vice president of the Maine Emergency Dispatchers Association.

''However, these little things keep popping up. Yes, we are concerned.''

The latest problems appear unrelated to malfunctions that occurred at the Cumberland County center in Windham and the state police center in Gray, and state officials and FairPoint are at a loss to explain why so many problems are happening at the same time.

The Penobscot County Communications Center in Bangor, which dispatches emergency calls for 88 public safety agencies, suffered three shutdowns of its 911 system over the weekend.

Its 911 calls are being routed to the center's backup, the state Department of Public Safety barracks in Orono, while technicians and engineers work to fix the problem.

Although the symptoms are similar to malfunctions at the Windham and Gray centers, the cause - a software configuration problem - does not appear to be the same. Penobscot County had the same software system checked and changed last month.

Nortel, the company that designed the equipment, says the power supply may be at fault. Nortel was delivering two new power supply components to the center Monday night.

''At least they have a plan,'' said James Ryan, executive director of the Penobscot County center. ''I'm not going to switch (911 calls) back until I know the system is going to work.''

Ryan said residents should continue to call 911 in an emergency, because all calls are being received, recorded and dispatched without problems, just through the state barracks instead of the county.

The 911 system at the Cumberland County dispatch center malfunctioned seven times between April 17 and May 17.

Ten days later, the system at the state dispatch center in Gray unexpectedly shut down.

The problem was diagnosed as a software configuration issue.

It was fixed at those two centers and at the four other dispatch centers that use the same type of system, including Penobscot County.

Public safety officials say they are not worried about the system's reliability, and they feel confident the backup systems are adequate to ensure the system would function in a major emergency. FairPoint officials said Monday they are working to correct the problems.

''We're doing the diagnostics and analysis again, trying to identify this problem,'' said company spokesman Jeff Nevins. ''It's a priority for us. We're doing everything we can to get the center back up and operating.''

Nevins said the company has called in Shared Technologies, which provides some of the switching technology, and Nortel, which designed the network.

It appears the problems are different from those at the other centers, but until they pinpoint the breakdown, he could not be sure.

The malfunctions have come at a sensitive time for FairPoint Communications as it takes over the northern New England assets of Verizon. The company says the 911 equipment and the people maintaining it have not changed since the purchase.

During one of the Cumberland County breakdowns, the telephone company delayed switching 911 calls to the backup center for an hour because of a communications problem.

To prevent that from happening again, the company installed a switch at the Windham facility, which gives dispatchers the ability to send 911 calls to the backup center in Gray without the telephone company's involvement.

In the May 27 malfunction in Gray and during this weekend's problems in Penobscot County, the switchover to a backup center was performed quickly and without problems, officials said.

When Penobscot County went down Friday morning, a caller would have received a busy signal.

Ryan does not believe the system was down for very long - the trouble was discovered at 9:30 a.m. - because only one caller reported having a problem.

When the caller couldn't get through on 911, the person called the local police department directly.

After dispatching an ambulance, police notified the center and calls were then rerouted.

Ryan said the rescue call was dispatched within a few seconds of the original call.

The county system was reset and taking calls again at 3:30 p.m. By 5 p.m. it had shut down again, and the calls were again rerouted.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com


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