Utah’s 911 system crashed and there are still no clear answers about what went wrong

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cellphone users around Utah experienced problems calling 9-1-1 on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Beginning Saturday morning and continued intermittently until Sunday morning, cellphone users were unable to connect to emergency services in areas across the state. The problem affected Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Summit and Washington Counties — and more.

CenturyLink issued a statement that the “disruptions to 911 service” were “due to an equipment issue. A repair team was dispatched, and all services are restored. We apologize to those affected.”

In response to an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune about what caused the problem, a CenturyLink spokeswoman replied, “We are reviewing what happened and taking steps to help prevent the issue from reoccurring.”

The director of the Salt Lake City 911 Bureau, Lisa Bustamante, is not satisfied with the response CenturyLink has provided as of Tuesday.

“No, I’m not,” she said. “I will continue to try and get to the bottom of this. I am not looking to blame anyone, but I need reassurance that this will not happen again. I want to know what safeguards they have to put in place.

“I was told that finding the root of the problem takes time, so I told them, ‘OK, but I won’t let this go.’ I hope that I will hear something soon.”

The problem was first believed to be connected to a Verizon power outage, but it also affected other cellphone carriers, including T-mobile, Sprint and AT&T. Land lines were not affected, but Burnette said about three-quarters of Salt Lake’s 911 calls come from cellphones. And all 911 calls go through a CenturyLink system.

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Some who called 911 heard a recorded message that all circuits were busy. Others were sent to police departments’ nonemergency lines — which is what’s supposed to happen when the 911 system isn’t working. Burnette tried calling 911 from her cellphone and got both responses.

“I’m excited that it’s working again,” she said. “But we need to know what happened so it doesn’t happen again.

“And if we miss even one 911 call, it can be catastrophic,” she said. “That is totally unacceptable.”