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FirstNet outage concern for some law enforcement leaders

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — When FirstNet, the emergency communications network, went out of service last Thursday morning, some law enforcement officials who spoke with ABC News said they feared it would be impossible to communicate with first responders in a crisis.


Born out of 9/11, the First Responder Network Authority was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012 and offers a single “interoperable network” for public safety.

The system is run off the AT&T network, which went down Thursday because of a software update gone wrong, the company said.

“To have this develop — and it wasn’t just five- or 10-minute outage, as a corrected minor problem — it was for several hours that AT&T was not working,” Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa, told ABC News. “And that just can’t be done.”

Sheriff Fitzgerald helped develop what is now FirstNet, which was codified into law in 2012, and he served on the FirstNet board for two years after the authority was signed into law.

He called the FirstNet outage “unfathomable” and said there should be federal oversight to figure out what happened and ensure a situation like Thursday never happens again.

The First Responder Network Authority is an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and is made up of a board that includes the Homeland Security secretary, the U.S. Attorney General, local sheriffs and fire chiefs among others.

“The First Responder Network Authority is working with its nationwide network contractor, AT&T, to conduct a thorough assessment of the outage and its impact on public safety operations,” FirstNet Authority said in a statement to ABC News. “Following the outage, AT&T took immediate action to prioritize restoration for public safety users of FirstNet, and service is currently running normally across the FirstNet network.”.

Charleston County, South Carolina, Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who sits on the FirstNet board said while her department wasn’t impacted by the outage, they had redundancies.

“One of the things I’ll be doing is personally reviewing the after action reports, we’ve had extensive conversations, and we’ll be overseeing as a board member next steps,” Sheriff Graziano said. “All I can tell you is as a result of what happens regardless if it’s an outage, we look at things worst case scenario and and and plan for the worst. And luckily though, this was not the case. It was not one of the worst case scenarios. It wasn’t a cyber attack that affected us, but we plan for that. The system is designed not to fail. It’s designed to be resilient. And I think that’s exactly what you saw with this particular outage.”

Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Jim McMahon told ABC News that the LAPD had no adverse impact because of the FirstNet outage and said the partnership between FirstNet and law enforcement has been “positive.”

“It’s been a great partnership and this example and how they’ve responded to things that will happen with technology,” he said.

In a statement to ABC News, AT&T said service was restored by about 6 a.m. Eastern time.

“The FirstNet networked was restored by around 5:00 a.m. CST on Thursday, Feb. 22 – about 3 hours since service was initially affected for some FirstNet subscribers across the country,” an AT&T spokesperson told ABC News. “Initial review of the cause indicates it was due to the application and execution of an incorrect process, and we took immediate action, prioritizing restoration of public safety’s communications. We are committed to identifying key learnings and have already implemented changes to prevent this from happening again.”

Prior to getting the contract, AT&T said it conducted several years of “outreach” to the first responder community.

“While network outages are uncommon, we understand our mission and is committed to taking the actions and applying the learnings to ensure continued mission-critical and highly reliable service for America’s first responders. The contract requires it, and public safety demands it.”

The Smith County, Texas, Sheriff’s office said sheriffs’ deputies were not allowed to make phone calls on their county issued cellphones for an hour and 15 minutes, and that FirstNet is installed on those devices.

“Fortunately, it happened early in the morning when our call load isn’t near as heavy as it is during the day,” Larry Christian, the Public Information Officer for the Smith County Sheriff’s Office said. “So that would have been a blessing in and of itself.”

Athens, Georgia, Deputy Chief Keith Kelley told ABC News that they did have some outages in the early morning hours.

“Well, it’s very impactful. So, for example, our mobile data terminals are what police officers are using to take police reports and push them through our record system. It’s how they get computer aided dispatch information,” Kelley said. It’s very important that those systems are up and running and that they are reliable. It can affect our operations from a reporting standpoint, and it can affect officers getting calls.”

Kelley said when systems go down, they need to be restored quickly and that is what FirstNet did in this case.

“FirstNet is built for public safety. It is very important to us that when there’s network congestion or issues that are that are occurring in the network, as far as call loading, that our public safety responders have priority within that network, and that’s been our experience with FirstNet.”

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the police department’s computers inside their police cars were down for about one hour, according to the police chief there.

“It’s always a concern when you disrupt anything that puts emergency services in touch with our community and our citizens because, sometimes that’s the lifeline that seconds can save lives,” Chief Johnny Jennings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department told ABC News. “And we want to make sure that that we’re always having that open line so that we can be reached whether that’s whether network goes down or whether we’re having people on hold or anything we take that very seriously.”

Jennings said his 911 call center was not impacted, but was concerned that many citizens could not reach 911 if they had AT&T as a wireless carrier.

John Cohen, former head of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, said that adversaries have taken note of what occurred and “could potentially leverage it” down the road.

“Any interruption in vital communication capabilities is a problem the longer that outage last, the more the higher with risk is that any interruption in communications is a problem,” Cohen, now an ABC News contributor, said. “But a widespread, long lasting outage, is highly dangerous and can lead to officer safety and public safety issues impacting entire communities.”

The federal government pays millions of dollars to AT&T to contract out the network, and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration cannot share any information about independent audits of FirstNet, including whether any vulnerabilities discovered have been fixed – due to a nondisclosure provision in the contract it negotiated with At&T.

“While the outage last week was apparently caused by human error, I remain deeply concerned about the security of FirstNet and its vulnerability to hacks by foreign governments. It is a disgrace that there are still no minimum federal cybersecurity standards for the phone companies, including FirstNet operator AT&T,” Wyden said in a statement to ABC News. “Instead of acting to protect U.S. critical infrastructure, as our ally the United Kingdom has done by mandating cybersecurity standards for phone companies, U.S. government agencies like the FCC are asleep at the wheel.”

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