Some answers about 911 outage will have to wait

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — In the wake of Wednesday’s critical 911 system failure, mostly questions remain.

Among the two most important: How did it happen and how can another failure be prevented.

But the answers to those and others will have to wait — at least from the county executive’s office, which assured residents Thursday the system is up and running, and they’re working around the clock to determine what went wrong.

“They respond to emergencies,” said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, of the county’s Emergency Services agency. “Sometimes those emergencies are within our own systems. They have redundancies and back up systems that also did not work.”

After the system went back online at approximately 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, the hours that followed were more about pointing fingers.

“If the backups  worked like they supposed to, not only from the county, but from our third party providers, you wouldn’t have even known that something happened, truthfully,” County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Wednesday.

Verizon is the county’s 911 provider. When a resident of Erie County dials 911, the call travels to a switch in the public safety building downtown, which routes the call to a 911 operator. Verizon’s system operated normally, said company spokesman Kevin Irland. But the power supply that operates that system — and the backup power supply — failed.

And there was no notification to users; a busy signal on the caller’s end and quiet lines on the county’s end.

“This was not an outage related to the Verizon 911 network; it operated as designed,” Irland said in a statement. “”The Erie County public safety building experienced a loss of commercial and backup power that impacted its ability to process some 911 calls. Verizon and Erie County are working closely together to develop plans to mitigate future outages related to the total loss of primary and backup power sources.”

Whitfield isn’t alone in expressing the seriousness of the problem.

“It’s a huge issue for the public and our organizations alike,” he said. “It’s something we take very very seriously.”

Poloncarz declined to comment Thursday, saying through press secretary Peter Anderson he’d rather wait until the investigation is complete to figure out what went wrong and why.

But he said plenty Wednesday — on twitter. Poloncarz first Tweeted about the 911 system failure at 5:02, nearly an hour and a half after the system went down.

He then Tweeted out numbers to specific departments.

But the question remains: is social media the best way to disseminate critical information?

Both Whitfield and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said Poloncarz did a fine job given the circumstances.

“Very serious issues,” Brown said. “But pleased that County Executive Poloncarz and his management team were on it, were on it quickly and got the word out.”

Legislators are expected to discuss the issue — and prevention of another widespread outage — at their April 7 meeting.

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