Levy full fine for CenturyLink’s 911 failure

Among the 6,600 missed calls to 911 that occurred in Washington and five other states during a six-hour period in April 2014, were those of an Everett woman who repeatedly called for help as an intruder menaced her and her young children in their home.

Alicia Cappola, in an interview with HuffPostLive following the outage, said she heard a banging at her front door at 1:45 a.m. and saw a man demanding to be let in. Cappola made repeated calls to 911 but each time heard only a busy signal. When the man then attempted to come in through an unlocked window, Cappola grabbed a kitchen knife and confronted the intruder, who soon left.

In all, Cappola, attempted 37 times to reach a 911 call center; 37 times she heard a busy signal.

CenturyLink and its 911 vendor, Intrado Communications, later traced the problem to software at a facility in Colorado that bottled up the calls without forwarding them to the proper call centers. In Washington state, 127 dispatch centers were affected; only 770 emergency calls reached 911 dispatchers, 4,500 calls seeking help for domestic violence, assault, motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies went unforwarded and unanswered.

This is not CenturyLink’s first 911 outage. Following a 10-day outage in the San Juan Islands in 2013 after an underwater cable was severed, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission last year ordered the company to credit customers $271,000, fined it $50,000 and is requiring nearly $3 million in equipment repairs and improvements.

The 2014 failure hasn’t gone unpunished. The Federal Communications Commission, following its investigation, criticized the companies for failing to live up to their obligations and for undermining the public’s trust in the 911 system. The FCC fined CenturyLink $16 million and Intrado $1.4 million.

CenturyLink must also answer to the state of Washington, but there is now disagreement between agencies as to the appropriate price for CenturyLink to pay.

The UTC, following its investigation, initially proposed a settlement agreement in September that would require the phone company to pay the state $2.85 million. The Office of the Attorney General is now pressing the UTC to impose the maximum fine, $11.5 million, which is based on the full penalty allowed for each unanswered call for help.

“The proposed settlement is woefully inadequate,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.

The UTC’s commission held a hearing Tuesday regarding the proposed settlement. A decision is expected later this year. During the hearing, Mark Reynolds, the company’s vice president for governmental affairs, said CenturyLink was not aware of the outage at the time, though he admitted the outage was foreseeable and preventable, SeattlePI.com reported Wednesday. An Intrado official also told UTC commissioners that “alarms” that might have alerted employees to the problem were not set at an easily noticeable level.

But emergency communications staff at many of the dispatch centers in the state had noticed they were receiving fewer calls than normal and attempted to alert CenturyLink to a potential problem. Instead of listening to the concerns, CenturyLink assured dispatch staff there were no problems, Ferguson said.

The UTC’s own investigation, the AG’s office noted, found emergency call centers were not properly notified of the failure and “were essentially left to their own devices to get the word out within the public safety community about the 911 outages.”

Limiting the fine CenturyLink should pay to a fourth of the maximum penalty doesn’t go far enough to impress on CenturyLink the severity of its failure to its customers to deliver a crucial lifeline to emergency responders.

“I don’t understand how a whole state could be without 911 access,” Cappola told HuffPostLive. “That just seems completely ridiculous.”

A $2.8 million fine is equally ridiculous.

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