CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Maine — FairPoint Communications executives accepted responsibility Monday for software and customer service problems that caused prolonged gaps in 911 service for some Cumberland County residents.
”We are embarrassed. … We have lost your confidence, and understandably so,” said John Smee, director of network operations for FairPoint.
Smee acknowledged the company should have fixed problems at the Cumberland County Regional Dispatch Center in Windham when they first emerged more than a month ago.
”It should have been escalated at that point,” he said.
Smee spoke publicly at a meeting of the dispatch center’s board of directors, just days after a miscommunication between phone company employees left some residents without 911 access for about an hour.
It was the third time in a month that residents of 17 communities in the county could not complete 911 calls for more than a half-hour.
FairPoint officials believe, but are not 100 percent sure, that a computer networking problem was to blame for a total of seven computer system failures at the emergency call center since mid-April.
They said they are installing new equipment meant to ensure that if another such failure occurs, dispatchers will be able to avoid a lengthy delay between the time of the failure and the time inbound 911 calls are transferred to another emergency dispatch center.
The problems came to a head this past weekend when flustered county officials redirected their incoming 911 calls to the Maine State Police dispatch center for the foreseeable future after what they called weeks of unacceptable service from FairPoint.
Authorities said the emergency calls will continue to go to state police until they are confident that problems between the county dispatch center and FairPoint are resolved.
The county’s 911 system malfunctioned five times during a two-day stretch in mid-April, and once each on Friday and Saturday.
The problem would not have been nearly as severe if there had not been significant delays in transferring calls to the state police dispatch center in Gray, which is the county’s state-mandated backup facility.
FairPoint traced the lengthiest delay, which began around noon Friday, to a miscommunication between employees at two call centers.
County officials on Monday demanded a mechanism to instantly route
911 calls to the state police in case of future problems, so they don’t have to rely on telephone company staff to make the transition.
FairPoint agreed to install a lever – it will resemble a light switch – at the regional communications center that will allow dispatchers to manually reroute the calls.
Smee said the company started work on the emergency switch Monday and will have the hardware in place later this week.
FairPoint will cover the overall cost of the new equipment, which was expected to be more than $1,000.
Had a disaster disabled the Cumberland County communications center, calls would automatically default to the state police without any human intervention, said communications center Director William Holmes.
That fail-safe mechanism did not recognize the computer problem at the county facility in Windham as a service interruption, and therefore did not transfer calls automatically.
When a person places a 911 call, a FairPoint switching facility identifies the exchange the call is being placed from and routes that call to the appropriate dispatch center.
A call-taker takes the relevant information and dispatches firefighters, police or rescue workers and sometimes provides emergency medical instructions over the telephone.
Cumberland Countylearned its 911 system was down when a display that shows the status of all emergency calls effectively went blank.
A dispatch supervisor called a ”customer care center” in Andover, Mass., where an employee took information about the failure and forwarded it to another call center in Manchester, N.H., where workers can reroute 911 calls from the county to the state police.
On Friday, Smee said, an employee at the Andover, Mass., center gave incorrect information to staff at the Manchester, N.H., facility, who then performed an unnecessary maintenance task instead of transferring the incoming emergency calls.
Smee agreed the delay had lasted from 55 to 63 minutes, the range provided by county officials. FairPoint officials had initially disputed the duration of the delay.
County officials, who initially pointed out two gaps in service of a half-hour or more, raised that figure to three on Monday, saying their 911 service went dead for at least 30 minutes twice during a 48- hour period in mid-April.
The Andover facility is owned by Verizon. FairPoint, which is still filling dozens of positions at its Manchester facility, hired the Verizon call center to be the first point of contact during emergency dispatch issues, Smee said.
”They’re unhappy with their own performance,” he said of the Verizon center.
FairPoint officials had not yet pinpointed what caused the other two lengthy delays.
The Bureau of Emergency Services Communication, which oversees 911 systems in the state, has indicated that county 911 calls should continue to be directed to state police until the bureau director, Al Gervenack, is satisfied the system is repaired. Gervenack has ordered a report from FairPoint describing the incident.
”It’s absolutely important the integrity of the system is completely established before it goes back on line,” said Fred Bever, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which includes the 911 bureau.
The current arrangement is not ideal, because state police dispatchers take the call, then forward the information to dispatchers at Cumberland County’s communications center over a non- emergency line. County dispatchers then direct the appropriate equipment to the caller.
”We absolutely appreciate the state police assistance, but any time you deal with multiple agencies with the same call there’s always the potential for lost information or miscommunication,” Holmes said.