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Failure of Erie County 911 system must be traced and permanently fixed

The failure of Erie County’s 911 system demands prompt answers and then a guaranteed action plan to ensure it never again occurs.

The unthinkable happened when the system shut down for nearly four hours Wednesday morning. Fail-safes didn’t work and the public was left uncovered.

The saving grace, if there is any, might be the fact that this failure occurred during the wee hours of the morning when typically about 40 calls come in. Of course, no one knows how many people dialed 911 to no avail.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and his administration acted quickly in getting the word out. The county executive, awakened shortly after 4 a.m., tweeted the news to his followers, who probably had to rub their eyes to make sure they were seeing the message correctly. The 911 system was down. How?

Turns out a malfunctioning air conditioner was the culprit. The backup system didn’t work. And somehow more than half an hour passed before anyone realized what was going on.

As News staff reporter Sandra Tan recounted, county dispatchers went to a secondary location in Cheektowaga and discovered that emergency calls that were supposed to be diverted to that location were not coming in.

It is appropriate that lawmakers have raised questions. The county spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years on 911 equipment, maintenance, training and testing. But as Legislator Edward Rath III, chairman of the County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said: “You should have had every possible scenario tested, retested and guaranteed.”

He’s right, and what happened should serve as a warning to the surrounding area.

County officials scrambled once they discovered the problem. But they do not know the number of 911 calls lost during the outage and can only feel grateful that the breakdown occurred during off-peak hours. It is not enough for them to point their brows in relief at the timing. Exactly how many emergency calls went unanswered is unknown, but one test resulted in the phone ringing 30 times before being answered by a dispatcher.

The county executive and legislators have vowed to get to the bottom of the failure, which involves multiple systems. Verizon, the vendor responsible for making sure 911 emergency calls continue to be answered in the event of a primary system shutdown, rejects allegations that it was at fault.

County officials are also in touch with Intrado, a subcontracting software provider, and working with Siemens, the vendor that provides the county’s climate control systems, to figure out what happened with the air conditioning system.

The county has never experienced such widespread failure in its emergency system. It must never happen again.