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911 Outage Raises Questions About Who Knew What When

Some Verizon and Sprint cell phones in cities in Oregon and Washington lost service Wednesday morning, including the ability to place 911 calls. Service has been restored.  But state agencies and the phone companies have provided conflicting stories about what happened and who was affected.

In Oregon the first official report of a problem with 911 calls appears to have come from police officers working early Wednesday morning.

Laura Wolfe is a spokeswoman for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications, which routes 911 calls  in the Portland metro area.

She says her agency found out about the problem not from the phone companies, but from police officers.

“The officers have Verizon cell phones. They were trying to make calls. And they couldn’t. That’s when they notified our dispatch center,” she said.

A dozen Oregon counties were affected by the Verizon outage, according to the company. The outage primarily affected 911 calls,  but also interfered with some regular voice calls as well.

Klamath Falls, Bend, Eugene and Portland were all affected.  And so were Verizon customers in Southwest Washington.

The outage lasted from about 3:45 until 7:30 in the morning.

Verizon spokesman Scott Charlston says the outage was caused by a Sprint fiber optic cable that failed. “You know we have shared infrastructure in certain locations, not one company has every single mile of the United States covered.”

Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh did not want to be recorded. But she confirmed that a sprint fiber cable failed early Wednesday morning, and the company had trouble  re-routing phone traffic.

Walsh initially said that Sprint customers had only lost the ability to access the internet from their phones. But later, she corrected that account, and said some Sprint customers in Tacoma, Portland, and rural Oregon had been unable to make voice calls or dial 911.

That loss of service to Sprint customers was news to the Oregon Department of Emergency Management, which is supposed to coordinate the state’s response to 911 outages.

Cory Grogan is a spokesman.  When asked whether his agency had received any information from Sprint that its customers were affected, he responded: “We have not been notified about that.”

And, Grogan added, it’s better if the state learns about outages right away, but: “It’s kind of up to those folks to make sure that they notify us, then if we don’t receive the information, then simply put, we just don’t have it.”

Sprint was not able to provide any specific information about which state agencies or emergency responders it notified.

Verizon spokesman Scott Charlston says law enforcement officers with Verizon phones may have received texts from the company at about 4 a.m. alerting them that 911 service was down.

“We send out text alerts to our partners in law enforcement, many of whom are customers of Verizon as well.”

But Charlston said law enforcement agencies would have to opt in to receive the company’s alerts about the 911 outage.