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‘It’s scary:’ Questions remain for Billings 911 dispatch regarding mass Verizon outage

Posted at 4:55 PM, Mar 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-17 14:49:51-04

BILLINGS- Although connectivity issues have been resolved with the Yellowstone County 9-11 dispatch center, there are still concerns coming from dispatch leaders about what led to the outage.

“There could have been several callers that tried and gave up,” said Billings Fire Chief Bill Rash.

Rash said it’s unknown at this point whether some calls to the emergency dispatch center were not received due to the outage connected to Verizon Wireless service on Tuesday.

“You think about how many calls we didn’t get,” said Rash. “We really don’t know because we didn’t receive them.”

As questions remain as to what led to the outage in service, Rash said the dispatchers documented at least 10 callers who specifically said they couldn’t get connected to 911 and used the non-emergency line to access dispatchers for a call for help.

Tuesday, Rash sent out a massive alert to the community and media saying the 911 center was failing to receive numerous emergency calls from Verizon and CenturyLink customers. Similar problems also affected emergency services in Gallatin County.

By 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Rash said Verizon alerted Yellowstone County that the issue was fixed.

However Rash said he waited roughly six hours, still directing callers to their non-emergency dispatch line to ensure the issue was indeed fixed.

By about noon on Wednesday Rash called the issue “fixed.”

Verizon Wireless spokesperson Steve Van Dinter said the outage was caused by a hardware malfunction within a third-party fiber provider. But Van Dinter would not confirm the third-party provider Verizon contracts with.

Van Dinter said once the company was notified of the problem, it was fixed within five minutes. However, he said Yellowstone County didn’t make notification until about 8 p.m. Tuesday.

He said Gallatin County, which also had trouble with its Verizon callers trying to access 911 on Tuesday is set up on the same third-party fiber routing system as the Yellowstone County center.

When the equipment malfunction occurred, it impacted agencies in both areas.

Still, he said the incident is not by any means a common occurrence, Van Dinter said.

“I have never heard of this happening before,” said Van Dinter. “But sometimes hardware fails.”

Still, Rash said there is an uneasiness about the occurrence because there is still no direct word from Verizon about what caused the mass outage. He intends to put in a formal request to Verizon to find out the exact details of the problem.

“We would like to know what happened and have them share that with us,” said Rash.

Along with Gallatin County, Rash said he also was alerted of the same problem happening as far away as California, where he said a dispatch center in Sacramento was also not receiving calls.

As the agency investigates along with Verizon and reflects on procedures, Rash said he wants to hear from community members in Yellowstone County, who may have called the dispatch center and never got through.

“It has been weighing on my mind a lot,” said Rash.

To Rash’s knowledge, nothing ‘major’ aside from car crashes and medical calls took place while the center was not receiving Verizon calls. However, he admits, at this point, he doesn’t know for sure.

“You don’t know, what you don’t know,” he said.

If in the future, you call 911 and can’t get connected to a dispatcher, you can call the center’s non-emergency dispatch line at 406-657-8200 to get help.