Pierce Co 911 call centers briefly overloaded after sonic booms

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by OWEN LEI / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on August 18, 2010 at 5:31 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 18 at 7:38 PM

TACOMA, Wash. -- "911, what are you reporting?" said the dispatcher.

"I'm reporting two large, explosion-type sounds," said the woman on the other line.

"Are you in Tacoma?" asked the dispatcher. "We are getting calls from all over the city."

Thousands of calls like this occurred within 30 minutes of two sonic booms rolling through Puget Sound Wednesday as two fighter jets scrambled into action over Western Washington.

But not everyone in Pierce County got through to a dispatcher. In fact, most calling between 1:55 p.m. and 2:27 p.m. heard only busy signals. The resulting spike in 911 calls from concerned citizens overloaded emergency lines into all six of Pierce County's 911 centers.

Similar surges in call volume happened in King, Snohomish, and Thurston counties, said officials with Qwest. Pierce County was the only one to report people not getting through, and blamed the overload on Qwest's 911 phone line trunks in Seattle.

"Of course the main concern was that citizens were calling 911 and they were getting a busy signal," said Mike Carson, interim director of the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA), the center that handles 90 percent of Pierce County 911 traffic.  "All our lines from Seattle [that branch] down to Pierce County were interrupted during that time."

During the overload cell phone and landline callers may have experienced a busy signal, said LESA officials, though Voice over Internet Protocol calls -- like phone lines hosted through Comcast -- were still received during that time.  The non-emergency line also functioned as normal, said Carson.

One of the biggest problem dispatchers faced Wednesday, was that many callers who overloaded the system were not reporting an emergency, but merely curious about the loud booms.

"We want people to call if there's a bonafide emergency," Carson said. "We just don't want you to call to ask a question."

Qwest spokesman Bob Gravely said their system didn't fail, technically, and that these circumstances were unusual.

"Just not enough capacity," he said. "It's wasn't an outage or failure in the system. Each of the 911 centers, they have a system that they built, with a certain number of lines... the ones that can't get in get a busy signal. It's really a capacity issue."

Gravely likened it to a highway that needed more lanes, and said fixing the problem "would be a decision that the state and local governments would have to make."

The lines in Pierce County were all back to normal 27 minutes after it began.  The concern now is that another emergency with another surge in calls could cause the same crippling problem, but both phone company and 911 officials said they are looking to see what could be done to prevent the overload from happening again.

"We will carefully research all of the issues around this failure and come up with steps to make sure that we avoid such problems in the future and find the best possible solution for citizens," Carson said.

Meanwhile, LESA asks that callers use the 911 system only for reporting "a true emergency - one which is life-threatening or for a serious crime that is in progress. For non-emergency situations, citizens are urged to call the non-emergency number (253) 798-4721."

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