Cut cable shuts down 911 system in WNC

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Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Law enforcement agencies throughout Western North Carolina were scrambling over the weekend when a fiber-optic cable was cut and left phone lines down for the western portion of the state. 

“Our dispatch center was unable to receive emergency as well as non-emergency calls from roughly 11 p.m. Thursday night until 4 a.m. Friday morning,” Todd Seagle, Emergency Dispatch Director for Macon County said. “A few admin calls did make it through, but how remains a mystery.”

Frontier Communications customers in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties plus the Cherokee Tribal area were unable to make calls to 911 for nearly five hours.

Seagle said that Frontier Communications responded to county officials Friday morning regarding what caused the widespread outage.

“I wanted to let you know the reason there was no advance notification of the fiber work done last night and this morning,” a Frontier representative informed Seagle Friday morning. “It was due to an isolated failure in our internal notification process.  The notification of the fiber event never reached the Customer Care Center supervisors or myself in advance of the start of the project.   We rely on this notification so that we can communicate events in advance.  Our senior management is looking at the entire scenario and process at this time.  Because of the location of the work being done at the bridge site, it isolated seven PSAPs [Public safety answering point] from the selective router, making any planned reroute impossible.”

The fiber was cut during a relocation of fiber-optic cables to accommodate a North Carolina Department of Transportation project. 

Seagle said that despite extensive efforts in place locally to avoid such a failure on the county end, Macon officials cannot control what other agencies do. 

“We have eight 911 trunks (lines) that service Macon County,” said Seagle. “We have four of them that terminate at our primary center and four that terminate at the backup center.  All eight lines can be answered from either location and this is what is known as “geo-diverse. We do this so that if a line gets cut it will only affect four of our lines and we can continue to operate on the other four lines until repairs are made.  Macon County has taken measures to ensure that we never have a single point of failure in our 911 system.  It is apparent that Frontier is not as geo-diverse as Macon County is.  It took just one line being cut to shut down the six westernmost counties in North Carolina and a total of seven 911 centers.”

 As soon as Macon County became aware of the outage, a code red alert was sent to residents and the county’s protocol was launched. 

 “Our protocol is to notify the law enforcement sergeants on duty of the situation in case they want to call in extra personnel to increase patrol or begin whatever protocol they have set in place,” said Seagle. “We also notify all of the fire chiefs to man their respective stations and have them prepare for walk-ins. We also send out a reverse 911 notification (CodeRed).  It seemed counter-intuitive in this case to call our residents to let them know that their phone isn’t working but we knew some cell phone to cell phone calls were being made successfully and we actually reached about 35 percent of the numbers on our call list. We also posted the outage to our FB page and what to do should you need help.”

Seagle said despite five hours without the ability for residents to call 911, Macon County was fortunate to not have any significant issues, to his knowledge. 

 “We were lucky. We had one medical call in the Franklin area,” said Seagle. “The caller stated she tried 911 for 45 minutes and was finally able to get through on an admin line.  Although the nature of that call was serious, it wasn’t life threatening.  A resident in Highlands was able to place a 911 call that was answered by Transylvania County 911. Transylvania was able to send us a message across our statewide DCI system with the address and we were able to get those folks some help.  It was a medical call as well.  We had a resident in Otto that had fallen and just needed lift assistance. That person was able to phone the Otto Fire Department directly. There were no other calls for service that we were aware of.  Again, we were lucky.”

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