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N4T Investigators: Tracking the cause of the 911 Breakdown

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TUCSON (KVOA) - When you pick up your phone to call 911, you expect that call to go through.

But for more than a million people living in southern Arizona and beyond, that life-line may not always work the way it should.

The system failed millions of people last week, and it wasn't the first time.

First responders say it can happen again.

“We were fortunate in this time that it wasn't tragic for our department or the people that we serve," said Pima County Sheriff's Deputy James Allerton.

In an emergency, fortune isn't what we depend on - it's first responders.

For nearly an hour, systems were down, and people in Arizona and 13 other states could not talk to operators by dialing 911.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators wanted to know how was the system able to fail?  

Lumen, formerly CenturyLink, is the company responsible for getting your calls to dispatchers.

A spokesperson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators that they were waiting to get a final reason for the outage from Intrado, Lumen's vendor.

So, the News 4 Tucson Investigators contacted Intrado ourselves, to find out how the outage happened.

In an email, an Intrado spokesperson told us:

"On September 28, 2020, at 4:30pm mt, Intrado observed conditions internal to the Intrado a911 network that resulted in disruption of 911 call delivery across several states. The impact was identified, mitigated and service was restored by 5:47pm mt. Initial analysis identified an internal networking component that was not correctly forwarding traffic, resulting in the impairment of call delivery. Our investigation into this incident is ongoing and we remain focused on communicating transparently with our customers and stakeholders."

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik says one of the companies needs to address the problem and keep it from happening again.

"Whatever technical fixes they need to put into place, whether it's at the front-end of their system, or the back end of their system, it's making pieces of their system talk to one another - that's their job, that's why they're in business," Kozachik said.

CenturyLink and Intrado paid up in 2015 after another outage. People across seven states couldn't reach 911. Three years later, there was another outage and fine.

"They have a corporate responsibility to protect people's lives," Kozachik told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Police, fire, and sheriff's department relied on non-emergency numbers, and social media to get the word out.  

The 911 system in Tucson's had issues two years ago.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators broke the story that callers were waiting a dangerously long time for police to answer.

Wait times improved since our investigation, but outages haven't.

Outages have also caught the attention of the Arizona corporation commission.        

"We need more 911 redundancy we call it, which means more than just one fiber line, in case like something like this were to occur. And we're currently at the commission investigating what happened, and seeing what we can to ensure that it doesn't happen again," commission member, Lea Marquez-Peterson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

In the weeks ahead, the Arizona Corporation Commission will be meeting about this latest 911 outage. Because of the pandemic, meetings are virtual, and you can also weigh in on the issue of 911 outages.

If you have a story you would like us to investigate, email investigators@ kvoa.com or call (520) 955-4444.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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