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State says software issue to blame for E-911 disruption

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — For 45 minutes on Monday night, call-takers at Rhode Island’s E-911 center were unable to speak to people calling with emergencies, according to Lt. Col. Kevin Barry, the commanding officer for the Department of Public Safety.

The system is back up and running, but technicians are still working to determine what caused the software glitch. Barry said dispatchers could see calls coming in and could hear the person on the line, but the callers could not hear them. Dispatchers used landline phones not connected to the E-911 system to call back the phone numbers and were able to assist them with their emergencies.

Ninety-eight people called 125 times between 7:41 p.m. and 8:26 p.m. Monday, while the system was malfunctioning, Lt. Col. Barry said. Some people were calling more than once, presumably because they heard no one on the other line. All but six callers were reached by dispatchers and their emergencies were handled.

“We’re not aware of any serious complications resulting in a delay in receiving emergencies services,” Barry said. “However, we believe any delay in a call for help is unacceptable.” Barry said the six callers who could not be reached either did not receive incoming calls or attempts to call them went to voicemail.

“We think they were all serviced, but we don’t know,” said William Gasbarro, the co-director of Rhode Island E-911. “I haven’t heard any feedback.”

The E-911 system, built by the company Solacom and maintained by AK Associates, has a backup system, but the system was not automatically triggered by this particular glitch. Dispatchers realized that callers could not hear them, and contacted supervisors.

“Because calls were getting through, the computer did not recognize a failure in the system and did not automatically trigger the backup system,” Barry said. “Once the problem was identified, E-911 officials manually turned on the backup server to restore full functionality to the system.”

Technicians at Solacom were contacted and they manually triggered the backup system at 8:26 p.m. The 45-minute delay to trigger the manual system occurred because technicians were diagnosing the problem, testing the backup system to make sure it didn’t have the same problem and then activating it.

“We’ve never had a malfunction of this magnitude,” said Barry. “We will do everything in our power to make sure we have a reliable backup that activates at the first sign of a problem.”

Arthur Kraus, the vice president of AK Associates, said his company had technicians on site in Rhode Island at the time of the glitch. The technicians had not detected any issues in their routine maintenance, and found no signs of malware or a cyber attack. The company has a $36,400 contract with the state for 2017, according to records obtained by Eyewitness News.

“It was one of those strange anomalies,” Kraus said. He said technicians pulled the computer logs and Solacom, which built and owns the software, is now combing through the data to find the root cause of the problem.

A spokesperson at Canada-based Solacom did not immediately answer questions about the issue. But William Gasbarro, the E-911 co-director, said he was told by Solacom that this particular glitch had not happened before in other states.

“There are no problems like this that we’re aware of that have happened with the system,” Gasbarro said.

During the malfunction, Rhode Island State Police put out notifications on social media and urged people to call their local police and fire departments directly with emergencies. A spokesperson for the Providence police and fire departments said those dispatch centers did not receive an increase in calls during that time period.

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