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Erie County legislators hear details about recent 911 outage

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Erie County lawmakers heard from department heads who further explained the events that triggered last week's temporary malfunction of the county's emergency 911 phone system.

Commissioners of the county's Emergency Services and Public Works departments were among those who appeared before the Legislature's Public Safety Committee on Thursday afternoon. Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth, Jr. gave committee members a detailed account of the events that began in the early morning hours of March 30.

Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO
Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth, Jr. testifies before the Erie County Legislature's Public Safety Committee hearing on Thursday in Buffalo.

Neaverth said the shutdown of the 911 center within the Public Safety Campus, which happened around 3:30 a.m., was caused by a mix of mechanical and human error. 

It began, he explained, with the failure of a cooling system in the center's basement. He continued by stating that an employee responding to an audible alarm attempted to silence that alarm but instead pressed a kill switch. 

"We had an individual who went down into that room and noticed that the room was starting to heat up," Neaverth said. "He hit the emergency stop, which cut all of the power for the third floor of the Public Safety Campus, which in turn shut down all of the computers, all of the dispatch consoles, as well as any of the phones that were up there."

Another issue questioned by legislators was the rerouting of calls upon the loss of power inside the Public Safety Campus' dispatch facilities. It was explained in Legislature Chambers that the county's 911 system consists of two nodes, one inside the Public Safety Campus and the other in the Emergency Operations Center in Cheektowaga. Calls that normally would go toward the PSC in downtown Buffalo would instead be routed to sites in Hamburg, Town of Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Amherst. Only Hamburg and Tonawanda were taking calls. 

The routing system, according to county officials, is operated by Verizon. The company, according to Neaverth, concluded an investigation by determining the network did not fail, however subcontractor West Inc. (Intrado) identified a login failure. The companies have subsequently developed a software patch to address a future failure at the downtown Buffalo node. 

Some lawmakers complained they were hearing conflicting statements by those who spoke before the committee. Legislator Joseph Lorigo expressed concern about whether the employee involved in the incident was properly trained to handle the situation.

"It sounds to me like the administration is looking to have a scapegoat, to say someone hit a button and shut down the whole system, when the reality is that person probably wasn't trained properly," Lorigo said. "As the Commissioner of (Department of Public Works) said, he's not even sure if there's anybody else who knows that to do and has no plan going forward with how to address it, how to train someone, if there's anybody else they can train to handle the situation."

Lawmakers expect more answers at the next Public Safety Committee public hearing, which is scheduled for May 5. 

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