What was Behind the Massive E911 Outages in the Pacific Northwest?

(Express-Times photo (2010))

As we move towards IP-enabled emergency services networks in the United States, we supposedly leave behind an archaic, TDM-based, hardwired point-to-point infrastructure with a new, resilient architecture that is easily rerouted around a failed segment. But exactly what happened in the Pacific Northwest when a supposedly planned maintenance event took out communications across a two-state area?

The immediate reaction by many was disbelief. After all, haven’t we learned our lesson in diversity and single points of failure with the massive outages in the Northeast from hurricane Sandy?

Nonetheless, the incident did happen, and for nearly 6 hours most — if not all — of 911 was off the air, stranding a reported 4,500 callers who needed assistance, according to a report from KIRO-TV.

As a professional in the public safety communications business, what I find slightly insulting are statements that make it into the press such as: “caused by an isolated system issue that was promptly resolved after root cause identification.”

While the term “promptly resolved” may be reassuring to the general public, the qualifier of, “after root cause identification” is the more troubling piece of information.

I can only imagine my daughter pulling into the driveway telling me that she had a flat tire, but she “promptly changed it, as soon as she realized it was flat” only then to realize that it took her six hours to realize she had a flat tire, hence the smoking, mangled wheel in the trunk of the car.

One of the areas of caution for public safety communications officials is going to be the monitoring of systems, and their interaction with the overall network. This is a significant point that needs to be taken under serious consideration when building and designing next-generation emergency services networks.

Public safety has always operated behind a closed curtain, taking the stance that important life-safety work was happening, therefore they should not be hampered by rules and policies that could affect their important mission.

But one area that has to be acknowledged is that commercial networks have come of age and have learned from previous events that include natural disasters, DDoS attacks, and direct attacks by some of the best hackers on the planet. The very resiliency and reliability that they demand to perform their mission critical life safety function is the identical resiliency and reliability that the world’s largest financial institutions demand to protect their data, as well as their customers.

When we sit back and look at the functionality that “Next Generation 911″ will bring into the public safety workspace, it is the world-class multi-modal, multi-channel functionality we have been delivering to commercial entities for decades.

Communications is an app on the network. Inbound and outbound communications events are easily coordinated and managed based on specific criteria. The age-old adage of routing a caller to a resource with close proximity to them only makes sense when there isn’t a large scale massive event taking place.

At the recent FCC workshop discussing the transition of 911, NENA’s Trey Forgety brought up the very relevant point that during a massive emergency event, the best place for the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) may be in the back of a hardened vehicle that is driving away from the emergency to an area where they will be safe and can establish a new fixed operational base.

While that’s an excellent plan, it requires a whole new method of thinking and engineering.

I often remind the engineers I work with that an Internet Protocol (IP) session does not mean we’re putting information on the “Internet”. It means that were using the Internet protocol — a network of network — to route information from node to node.

Under normal sunny-day conditions, that IP-based network may very well remain within the walled garden of an agency’s network. But when an emergent condition exists at the time of a disaster, we need to be able to dynamically open gateways to specific paths within the garden that are accessible from the outside. Of course in doing so, the highest level of security needs to be considered and implemented.

I believe that what has yet to be developed, or has not been developed enough, is the technical acumen of networking technology by public safety specialists. As I sit back and think, I can almost count on a single hand the number of people that I would feel comfortable with designing modern IP-based critical communications environments.

When I’m asked what value Avaya brings to the public safety table, I talk about our decades of resilient, reliable, redundant communications, and keeping the proverbial “lights on” in some of the most dire events of the past few decades. As examples, I again look to our large financial and commercial contact center customers who have worked their way through 9/11, massive blackouts across the Northeast, and as the newly coined Derecho and Blizzards on the planet.

Be sure to join me on April 22 for a free webinar sponsored by our good friends at Smart 911 and Rave Mobile Safety. I’ll be joined by Todd Piatt from Rave, and Bill Schrier (@BillSchrier) who is with the State of Washington office of the CTO, where will be discussing NG9-1-1 / First Net in the changing role of 911.

I will also be kicking off the 2014 series of the Public Safety Best Practices Forum at the Embassy Suites Hotel at the Seattle Tacoma International Airport in Washington on Thursday, April 24, where I will be joined by Patrick Botz from Voice Print International, Inc., and other industry colleagues. If you are in the Seattle-Tacoma area and want more information you can go to http://psapforum.com/Seattle.

Want more technology, news and information from Avaya? Be sure to check out the Avaya Podcast Network landing page athttp://avaya.com/APN. There, you will find additional podcasts from industry events, such as Avaya Evolutions and INTEROP, as well as other informative series by the APN staff.

Thanks for stopping by and reading the Avaya Connected blog on E911. I value your opinions, so please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer, you can email me privately.

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

Read my other AVAYA CONNECTED Blogs

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he provides the strategic roadmap and direction of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, and co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the EU, where he provides insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.

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