911 outage originated 140 miles away

911 services suffered an outage on Jan. 31 and it all started 140 miles away.
911 services suffered an outage on Jan. 31 and it all started 140 miles away. Bradenton Herald

A widespread outage of 911 emergency services on Jan. 31 that affected Manatee County and the rest of the Tampa Bay area originated in Clewiston, on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee, almost 140 miles away.

The outage affected seven counties and multiple municipalities, sending officials into scramble mode to find alternative ways to respond to the outage. Manatee County alerted residents using the Code Red system, offering alternate numbers to call while the city of Bradenton resorted to social media and press releases to get the information out as quickly as possible.

Jacob Saur, chief of emergency operations 911 for Manatee County, said the outage should never have happened if Frontier did what they were supposed to do.

“There’s what’s called a geo-diverse system, which is two parallel systems Frontier owns, and they should never touch one another,” Saur said. “So if one is cut, the other side picks up the call and you’d never even know there was an issue. That obviously didn’t work and we believe they weren’t geo-diverse, but that’s all Frontier is telling us right now. Both sides should be completely diverse and if that was the case, this shouldn’t have happened.”

Saur said there’s a group called Tampa Bay Six, which is a group of 911 coordinators responsible for reporting to each of their county commissions on outages and other emergency situations.

“We are all in contact with one another, as well as Frontier, and we have posed some questions to them,” Saur said. “There is absolutely no way this should have ever happened through the state 911 plan. Those lines should be far enough away from one another to prevent anything like this from happening.”

Saur said Manatee County is ending its contract with Frontier and just signed with a new Internet-based provider, Airbus Communications, last month. Saur said it takes about six months to get the infrastructure in place and the county will first move cellphone service into the system because 80 percent of 911 calls come from cellphones.

There is absolutely no way this should have ever happened through the state 911 plan.

Jacob Saur, Manatee County Chief of Emergency Operations 911

“From there, it will take another couple of months to get land based lines into the system,” Saur said, noting no one will lose 911 service during the transition.

Zachary Burch, government affair and communications manager for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the incident occurred while workers were moving utilities from a road widening project along State Road 80 in Hendry County. Burch said the project is a FDOT project, but the workers were not associated with FDOT or their contractors.

“In this case, like similar projects, there are utilities in our right of way and those utility companies are allowed in those rights of way to move their utilities,” Burch said. “While they were moving their utilities, something happened with their workers.”

Burch said the line was cut by CenturyLink, an Internet service and global communications provider for home and business. CenturyLink did release a brief statement last week that they had cut the line, but did not go into any details.