Utilities and Transportation Commission to decide penalty following Jan. 12 hearing
SEATTLE — Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson urges the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to reject a proposed settlement and impose the maximum regulatory penalty of $11.5 million on CenturyLink for a six-hour 911 outage that left the entire state without critical 911 services. The UTC will hold a hearing on Jan. 12 to consider penalties for the telecommunications company.
The 911 outage, which occurred April 9 – 10, 2014, was caused by a preventable coding error that caused 911 calls to fail once a total of 40 million calls had been logged by third-party software used to provide 911 service. Compounding the error, the software’s back-up measures to reroute calls failed and it had insufficient warnings to alert technicians to the severity and extent of the problem. As a result, CenturyLink was slow to recognize and respond to the critical outage. When 911 operators, concerned by an unusually low number of incoming calls, reported suspected problems to CenturyLink, they were initially told the company was not aware of any problem.
During the outage, CenturyLink did not adequately communicate to the public, the media, 911 call centers and the UTC about the problem and the extent to which 911 services were affected. The UTC investigation found that emergency call centers were not properly notified and “were essentially left to their own devices to get the word out within the public safety community about the 911 outages.”
Over 5,600 calls to 911 failed in Washington state during the six-hour outage, including calls from victims of assault and domestic violence, witnesses to car accidents and explosions, and patients suffering from chest pain and heart attacks. Alicia Cappola, an Everett mother, was home with her 5-year-old twins and was forced to arm herself with a kitchen knife to ward off an intruder after 37 unsuccessful attempts to get through to 911.
“It is simply unacceptable for millions of Washingtonians to be without access to essential 911 emergency services,” said Ferguson. “The proposed settlement is woefully inadequate. CenturyLink must be held accountable for this preventable service outage, their failure to timely communicate the problem, and the severe impact it had on public safety. The maximum penalty exists for a reason. If this egregious case is not the appropriate circumstance for it, I cannot imagine what would be.”
CenturyLink, based in Monroe, Louisiana, is the sole wireline provider of 911 services in Washington, by contract with the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. To fulfill its obligations under the contract, CenturyLink contracts with a third-party vendor, Colorado-based Intrado. CenturyLink reported total Washington operating revenues of $475,609,089 in 2013.
On Sept. 10, 2015, CenturyLink and UTC staff entered into a proposed settlement agreement that requires the company to pay a penalty of $2,854,750 and to submit several ongoing reports to the UTC. That agreement is subject to approval by the commission. On Oct. 27, 2015, the Attorney General’s Public Counsel Unit — which represents customers of state-regulated utilities — filed testimony opposing the settlement and calling for the maximum penalty of $1,000 per violation, or a total of $11.5 million.
Public Counsel also filed Alicia Cappola’s testimony detailing her ordeal, as well as testimony from Tom Orr, Executive Director of NORCOM, the agency responsible for answering 911 calls and dispatching police, fire, and EMS service providers in northeast King County. At least 29 calls to NORCOM failed during the outage. Orr testified to the lack of timely and accurate information provided by CenturyLink during the outage, stating that “information was confusing and contradictory. Information as to scope and nature of the outage was spotty, at best. It took several hours for CenturyLink to confirm the outage.”
The UTC will consider evidence by Public Counsel and other parties at the hearing on Jan. 12, 2016, and then decide whether to accept, reject, or modify the proposed settlement.
Members of the public can comment on the UTC proceedings. The deadline to do so is Jan. 12, 2016.
Written comments may be sent to UTC, P.O. Box 47250, Olympia, WA, 98504-7250, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name and mailing address, the name of the company (CenturyLink), and docket no. UT-140597.
For more information, customers may contact either the UTC or Public Counsel:
- UTC – (800) 562-6150, email at email@example.com. Information is available online at www.wutc.wa.gov. Enter docket no. UT-140597.
- Attorney General’s Office Public Counsel Unit — Public Counsel, Attorney General’s Office, 800 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2000, Seattle, WA 98104-3188, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Public Counsel Unit advocates for the interests of consumers on major rate cases, mergers, rulemakings, and other proceedings before the UTC. More information about Public Counsel’s work is available online at http://www.atg.wa.gov/about-public-counsel.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov