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Editorial: 911 outage is a cautionary tale. Let's learn from it.

911 Center starts taking calls for Charleston police (copy)

The Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center in North Charleston now serves all major emergency response agencies in the county and has since 2013. Staff/file

The tri-county area wasn’t struck by an earthquake or a hurricane May 20. It was quite the opposite — a gorgeous spring day. Still, 911 emergency service went down without warning for much of the day, a situation that could have had dire consequences.

Fortunately, we have seen no reports of anyone whose health, well-being or property suffered as a result of the outage. Each county — especially Charleston, which was the first to notice the problem when one of its telecommunication employees discovered it was impossible to make a phone call — did a commendable job of quickly publicizing alternative numbers to call for help.

But this apparent silver lining does not by itself restore faith that our 911 emergency system is as reliable as we need it to be. It’s certainly understandable that the system could face problems with hurricane-force winds or ground-shaking tremors, but last month’s issue stemmed from what only has been described as a “large AT&T outage.”

Two weeks later, an AT&T spokesperson could not be much more specific, saying only: “We worked quickly to repair two fiber cuts caused by third parties that affected services in the Charleston area on May 20.”

Jim Lake, director of Charleston County’s Consolidated Dispatch Center, likened the problem to a farm along a river where the farmer noticed someone has built a dam upstream. “We dug ditches around that dam so water could get to us,” he said. “We were still operational, but we weren’t getting 911 calls from AT&T.”

The Federal Communications Commission should ensure it gets the necessary facts since the incident highlighted a lack of resilience in our important 911 communications system. And the event — our region’s first large-scale 911 glitch in some time — also serves as a reminder to local officials to ensure we have the necessary redundancy and reliability for such critical services. We’re more connected than ever, but the technology making those connections evolves and we must be sure to change with it.

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We are pleased to know that’s already in the works to some degree. Berkeley County has a rollover system that allowed its phone systems to remain operational, and it fielded calls from people in other counties and municipalities. “This ‘failover’ system helped the Lowcountry respond to emergencies until other counties and areas set up temporary emergency phone numbers,” said county spokeswoman Hannah Moldenhauer.

Mr. Lake said Charleston County was helped by Berkeley, but it’s also in the final stages of installing a new digital network separate from the AT&T network, and that should be operational by year’s end. Once that’s in place, an existing agreement with Beaufort, Berkeley, Horry and Georgetown counties will be in full effect, too. That arrangement will help during more predictable times of stress, such as hurricanes.

“In what we do, we’re always looking for diversity and redundancy. Even though we built in all sorts of backup plans, some revolved around AT&T, so a simple lesson learned is we’ll look to purchase from another telephone provider some administrative lines so we have another way of communicating with the public.”

The media and those on social media helped May 20 by quickly sharing news of the 911 outage and mentioning the backup 10-digit telephone numbers. “That really helps us spread the word,” Charleston County spokeswoman Kelsey Barlow said. “We had 1,400 shares. … That’s the best we can ask for.”

If the public played a positive role there, the county also learned a cautionary tale and would urge residents — should a similar situation arise again — not to call the backup lines just for the purposes of testing it to see if it works. That only makes things worse.

We are thankful that there appears to have been no major local emergency that unfolded between late morning and early evening on May 20, but no one should operate on the assumption that we will be equally as lucky next time.

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