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Widespread 911 outage causes alarm for Kansas, county officials
911 office net clock
911 services were down for a few hours Sunday in much of Kansas, including Barton County. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

TOPEKA  (AP) - Some officials charged with upgrading Kansas’ 911 system say a nearly three-hour outage across the southern part of the state, including Barton County, on Sunday revealed the potential for future major disruptions to emergency operations.

During the outage, which began about 1:35 p.m., multiple counties weren’t able to log into the state’s 911 system. The impact varied, with some agencies posting alternative emergency phone numbers on social media or rerouting calls before service was restored around 4:40 p.m., The Kansas City Star reported.

A 2018 audit warned that the system was at risk of outages, and Sunday’s incident was the third major 911 failure in four years.

A 911 Coordinating Council has been leading efforts for years to upgrade the state’s system to the next generation of service, called NG911, which allows residents to text 911 and ensures that calls can be quickly transferred between dispatch centers.

State Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who is on the council, said he wasn’t surprised by the latest outage.

“The basic function of making sure we have a redundant system has been ignored and (Sunday’s) events are just one more exemplification of this,” Carmichael said. “We are teetering on the edge at some point of having a similar failure in the midst of, for example, a tornado or other significant statewide emergency.”

Gov. Laura Kelly said she was “obviously concerned something like that could happen.” She said the Kansas Division of Emergency Management is working with local officials to identify the cause and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Michele Abbott, who is on the 911 Council’s executive committee, said officials need to do a deep analysis to determine exactly what happened.

“We had some counties not able to log on, but we don’t know that their calls weren’t routed somewhere else or that they weren’t partially at the very least being properly answered somewhere else,” she said.

The 911 Council said in a Facebook post that the problem was caused by a “software conflict.” Abbott on Monday repeated the explanation and said the disruption didn’t appear to be the result of a cyberattack.

AT&T is a major vendor for the state’s 911 system. On Monday, a company spokesperson said service was restored after a brief technical issue.

The 2018 audit found that 62% of emergency dispatch centers reported experiencing system down time. It also detailed two major outages that disrupted 911 service in dozens of counties.

Despite changes made after each of those events, the system’s design doesn’t eliminate the risk of future outages involving several emergency centers, the report said.

Ideally, 911 systems should have just 5 minutes of downtime per year, a standard known as 5-9. But Kansas’ system cannot be expected to meet that standard because it is on a single network, auditors said.

Brandon Abley, technical issues director at the National Emergency Number Association, said older 911 systems are more vulnerable to disruptions than next generation systems. But much of the country is still transitioning to next generation systems, which leaves systems susceptible to problems, he said.