N.M. Authorities to Review Massive 911 Outage

LAS CRUCES, N.M. --

Dozens of 911 call centers in New Mexico lost service for more than three hours Tuesday, including the Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority in Las Cruces.

In all, 12 pairs of fiber optic cables were cut with the first cut made just south of Socorro, N.M. around 10 a.m.

Hugo Costa, director of the Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority, said a backup system worked, rerouting calls and keeping the systems connected.

But then a second cut was made around 4 p.m., causing the backup to fail.

Dispatch officials immediately enacted an emergency plan, directing 911 callers to the nonemergency number as well as providing two additional alternate numbers.

Las Cruces police and the dispatch authority sent out text messages, alerting residents of the problem and providing those alternate numbers to call.

All fire stations had personnel present even while others were out on calls, and additional police officers were put out on patrol.

"They up staffed their shifts so that they had additional units out on the streets in the event that somebody needed to flag down an officer," said Fire Chief Travis Brown, of the Las Cruces Fire Department.

Brown said fortunately, it was a slow day with not many people calling 911.

Overall, he said he's pleased with the response from city and county entities, noting the situation could have been much worse.

"We made calls to other public safety answering points or dispatch centers throughout New Mexico that had also been affected," said Brown. "And consistently, what we had been doing was several steps ahead of most other communities."

Costa said he has put in a request with Qwest Communications to find out how many people tried to call 911 but couldn't get through.

His staff is also calculating their own data to find out how many calls were made to the alternate numbers in the 3 1/2 hours that the 911 system was down.

Plus, those who responded to the outage yesterday will meet to discuss what worked and what could have been handled better.

Costa said the outage has raised questions about just how many backup routing systems are needed to prevent this type of problem from happening again.

In December 2009, Sierra, Luna and Hidalgo 911 call centers lost service for up to six hours. That incident is what led to the backup routing system in place now.

Costa said he would like to look into the possibility of a satellite routing system. He said feasibility issues and the cost would need to be researched.

The phone and Internet outage affected the New Mexico State University campus as well.

"Our 911 on campus was not working property," said Shaun Cooper, associate vice president for information technology at NMSU. "So we used our emergency alert system to alert everyone we could that if they needed to call 911, they could dial other numbers using their cell phones."

And a few NMSU faculty members had problems getting their grades in because of the Internet outage. So NMSU extended that process through Wednesday. Cooper said it should not cause a delay with grades being released to students on Thursday, as scheduled.

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