‘Dependent on them’: 911 dispatcher wonders how Lumen can prevent another statewide outage

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Westcom Emergency Communications moved into the City of West Des Moines public safety facility in 2009.
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By Addison Lathers, Des Moines Register

An emergency service provider in West Des Moines said the statewide telecommunications outage Thursday that impacted internet and landline phones services was unavoidable — and they might not be able to prevent it from happening again.

“This was upstream, above all of us,” said Udell F. Mentola, spokesperson for the Westcom Dispatch Center, which dispatches police, fire and emergency medical services for the cities of Clive, Norwalk, Urbandale, Waukee, West Des Moines and Windsor Heights. 

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The outage, caused by an internal water pipe break at a Lumen Technologies and CenturyLink facility at 604 Ninth St. in Des Moines, was widespread, affecting work-from-home employees, bank ATMs and restaurant credit card machines from Davenport to Des Moines. Residents were unable to make calls to 911 and area hospitals from their landline phones and several cities were unable to receive calls.

In Des Moines, phones went down at 5 a.m. Thursday and weren’t fully restored until before 4 p.m. Friday, according to a statement from the city.

Mentola said the dispatch center does have safety measures in place in case of a service outage. The problem was, he explained, Lumen’s issue superseded those safeguards.

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“They took down the whole state all because everything is housed in one building,” he added, “which prevented all of our alternative plans to be used. There was no broadband. No landlines. When the broadband went out, of course all the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones were taken out.”

A spokesperson from the Iowa Communications Network, a state agency that operates a fiber optic broadband network for Iowa’s government, health care, education and public safety sectors, declined to discuss Lumen’s outage, stating that he “didn’t want to comment on someone else’s network and their facilities.”

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In 2015, ICN added CenturyLink services to its own offerings, allowing government users to purchase CenturyLink’s products and data networking packages.

Mentola maintains that Westcom still had landline connectivity though backup phone lines that don’t use Lumen. Dispatchers could take inbound calls and make outbound calls, but only if the receiver could receive them. As of Friday morning, Westcom still couldn’t reach the Des Moines Police Department.

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The dispatch center plans to conduct an internal review with Des Moines and Polk County to determine how to better respond if a widespread outage occurs again.

The real question, Mentola said, is how Lumen plans to move forward.

“We’re dependent on them. I can’t put in my own telephone lines,” Mentola said.

Lumen has similar outages throughout Midwest

Lumen Technologies is a Louisiana-based telecommunications company that emerged from an effort to rebrand CenturyLink in 2020. CenturyLink remained in name as Lumen’s recognizable brand for residential and small business internet customers.

Lumen Global Issues Director Mark Molzen did not respond to inquiries from the Des Moines Register on Friday regarding the electrical issues that occurred at the company’s Des Moines site or whether Lumen would be taking any action to ensure a statewide telecommunications outage wouldn’t happen again.

“Our techs worked through challenging circumstances, identified the issue and have worked throughout the past two nights to fix it as quickly as possible,” he said in a prepared statement Friday morning.

In April, an outage occurred in Nevada, South Dakota and Nebraska that lasted for at least two hours. Hundreds of calls for emergency services were affected. Molzen told the Argus Leader that the states experienced an outage due to a third-party company installing a light pole in in Kansas City, Missouri, and said it was “unrelated to our services.”

But the outage wasn’t a lone event. The Siouxland Proud reported that service was disrupted in southeastern South Dakota in January, leaving customers in Lincoln, Union, Miner and Minnehaha counties unable to call 911 with a landline for hours. Landlines in South Dakota also were not able to make or receive local phone calls to or from other Lumen areas. And last year, the Nebraska Examiner reported that Lumen claimed two separate fiber optic lines had been accidentally cut in Minneapolis and in Omaha, which blocked calls from being received by more than half of Nebraska’s 911 centers for about 10 hours.

David Sankey, the 911 director for the Nebraska Public Service Commission, told the Nebraska Examiner that Lumen should double up on infrastructure that supports calls for emergency services, ensuring backups in case of outages.

“We know fiber optic lines are going to get cut (sometimes),” he said. “We need these systems to be as redundant and robust as possible.”

Addison Lathers covers growth and development for the Des Moines metro. Reach her at 608-931-1761 or [email protected], and follow her on X at @addisonlathers.

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