FORT WORTH (CBS11) – AT&T is trying to figure out what knocked out cellular 911 service in 14 states including Texas Wednesday evening.
An estimated 18,000 calls to 911 went nowhere.
The outage is sparking a federal investigation and forced dispatchers to scramble to find a way around the problem.
On Wednesday evening, dispatchers in Fort Worth started getting word on social media there were problems in other cities, a fire department spokesman said.
They used their own cell phones to call the system to see if it worked. There wasn’t a contingency plan in place for a cellular 911 outage. So, once they realized there was a problem they decided to route calls through the main non-emergency number.
“It’s routed directly there depending on the type of emergency,” said Lt. Kyle Falkner, spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department. “And within that group, when they recognize that something was going on that’s when I started to try to spread the word to try to call the nonemergency number.”
They let people know about the non-emergency number through social media and Nixle, a free text warning system that sends localized alerts to cell phones.
But whatever caused AT&T customers to lose 911 is now the focus of a federal investigation. AT&T isn’t commenting on what might have caused the outage. But UT Arlington’s Christoph Csallner in the Computer Science and Engineering Department said the company will likely have a massive job finding what went wrong.
“It would require systematically to analyze the whole system, to look at the logs of what happened, to reconstruct what led to it,” he said.
Cell phone companies have a special system for locating callers and routing 911 calls. If a fault is found in AT&T’s system it could affect phone companies outside the U.S.
“Other countries have the same type of system so that it can be learned here can be applied in other countries,” said Csallner.
For cell phone owners, there’s a lesson to learn, too. Most cities told people to use non-emergency numbers instead of 911. People should find out what local non-emergency numbers are now before there is another problem.
“As part of their communication plan this is something you need to have as well,” Falkner said. “Have those non-emergency numbers already programmed into your phone so you have it available if you need it in an emergency.”
The 911 Director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Christy Williams said, “Everybody I knew was up last night. A 911 outage is just never acceptable. The industry takes it very seriously.”
The problem occurred as Dallas police continue to experience ghost calls from T-Mobile numbers that can tie up its 911 lines for hours, leaving callers on hold.
Williams, however, doesn’t see a connection.
“We have not identified any patterns,” she said.
She also doesn’t believe hackers are to blame.
“We’re mainly closed networks, so hacking in the normal sense of the word is not likely.”
Operators have found when cell phones can’t call 911, they can sometimes successfully text the number.
“We’re able to text back and forth with them,” said Rhonda Wilson, with Rowlett 911.