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Erie County 911 restored; officials concerned about backup failures

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Michael Mroziak, WBFO
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Erie County officials say they are working with the parties involved with the county's 911 system to determine why the emergency service went out early Wednesday morning. Among the answers they seek is why the automatic notification and re-routing systems did not work properly after 9-1-1 computers began shutting down.

According to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the trouble began shortly after 3 a.m., when a cooling system in the basement of the county's Public Safety Campus malfunctioned. Not long after that, a fail-safe system initiated and began shutting down computer units to prevent them from overheating.

The computer shutdowns, according to Poloncarz, worked as intended. However, the system which was then supposed to alert county officials of the HVAC malfunction did not. Neither did another system which was supposed to divert all incoming calls to other centers.

"The system has a fail-safe mechanism that, once it starts shutting down internally, it is supposed to reroute 911 calls to four locations," Poloncarz said. "Call centers in Amherst, Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Hamburg are immediately supposed to get those. And then they are to be rerouted to our Emergency Operations Center, where additional calls can be handled from there."

Only one of the centers, in Tonawanda, received calls. Others went to the Buffalo Fire Department. 

Officials say the system which was supposed to immediately notify county officials of the computer shutdowns is provided by Siemens, while the rerouting system is handled by Verizon and Intrado. 

"The system has been tested many, many times with an organized shutdown, because you can't just automatically shut down a system and hope for the best. What we're doing now is we're addressing with Verizon, with Intrado, with those folks, why when we actually did have a hard shutdown it didn't transfer to those four backup systems," said Daniel Neaverth, Jr., the commissioner of Erie County's Emergency Services. "That's really where the investigation needs to be. Once we get an answer from them, we'll have a better handle on making sure this doesn't happen again."

The 911 system was restored by 7 a.m. 

In the meantime, Erie County Legislator Ed Rath has called for a hearing on the 911 outage. Rath, who chairs the Legislature's Public Safety Committee, forwarded messages of thanks to county staffers who restored the system but also declared in one tweet: "I have many questions."

Poloncarz, during his news conference, anticipated Rath would call for a hearing but offered critical words about the lawmaker.

"We've done tremendous upgrades in the 911 system over time," he said. "I'm sure Legislator Rath will have a hearing. He likes hearings, but he truthfully does not like to invest in infrastructure or individuals.

"Shame on them if they're going to make this a political thing, because I can tell you each and every one of these individual have been up since early in the morning - I've been up since early in the morning - but I'm confident that Legislator Rath was sleeping in and then calling for a hearing without actually doing anything to make a difference."

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Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO
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Erie County Legislator Ed Rath speaks to reporters after the county's 911 system was restored to service. Rath, who chairs the Legislature's Public Safety Committee, says that panel will host a hearing next week to seek answers regarding Wednesday morning's incident.

Rath, who hosted a news conference about 30 minutes after the conclusion of Poloncarz's briefing, insisted his upcoming hearing is not meant to point fingers or be politically partisan. He also took exception to comments about government spending and the suggestion he's a hypocrite for seeking answers about the 911 system failure.

"Let me make something very clear to you. We have never once cut funding to the 911 system or to the public safety initiatives when it comes to 911 and the dispatch system," Rath said. "Most of that money is grant money that comes into Erie County, and each and every time we have 100 percent approved that funding.

"But along with those approvals that we've done, we have the expectation that the systems are going to work, and that all of the fail-safe traps are going to be working properly. In this case, it did not."

The Public Safety Committee hearing on Wednesday's incident, Rath said, is scheduled for Thursday, April 7, though a start time was not yet announced.

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