Communications board digs into Christmas bombing outage

In the wake of the Nashville Christmas bombing that disrupted regional telecom service, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board has been working with AT&T to ensure a more resilient 911 network.

In the wake of the Nashville Christmas bombing that disrupted regional telecom service, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB) has been working with AT&T to ensure a more resilient 911 network.

When a bomb inside an RV parked outside AT&T’s downtown Nashville switching facility went off, it disrupted internet, phone and wireless services as far away as Kentucky and Alabama. The explosion caused voice and data service outages for 911 call centers, businesses, hospitals, the Nashville airport, government offices and individual mobile users. FirstNet, the nationwide, wireless public-safety broadband network operated by AT&T, was also affected.

In a May 5 meeting, TECB Vice Chairman Steve Martini submitted a report to the board that concluded the main cause of the network failure was AT&T’s inability to expeditiously access the switching facility, according to a report in UrgentComm detailing the TECB discussions.

"The primary issue with the outages to 911 and other services was the inability to access the building to replace commercial power before the backup failed," Martini told the board.

Network infrastructure was not directly affected by the explosion, but backup power generators were damaged by fire and water, leaving AT&T insufficient time to reroute all services before backup batteries were drained. Additionally, because the building was a crime scene, AT&T personnel were not permitted to enter until police were finished gathering evidence and engineers deemed the building sufficiently safe.

Sixty-six public safety answering points were impacted by the outage, which was compounded by the fact that some PSAPs did not receive updates on the issue for six days because a transmission link connecting AT&T and the PSAPs via the Everbridge alerting system had also been damaged.

To ensure a similar situation does not arise after future disasters, AT&T told TECB officials that it planned to evaluate the electrical-power-shutoff infrastructure in all its central offices and conduct engineering studies on improving capabilities of its backup generators, Martini said.

“AT&T is talking with government officials about establishing national protocols to expedite access in the event that a future crime creates a communications outage,” he said. “While this a national undertaking -- talking with the FCC and FBI, for example -- local AT&T leaders have already briefed members of metro Nashville government and the state government on the need to revise crime-scene protocols to accommodate emergency-communications restoration.”

“The events on Christmas morning and the hours that followed certainly provided an emphasis that we must have a fail-proof system,” TECB Chairman Phillip Noel said at the board meeting. “This is a no-fail mission. We have to ask the important questions, gather a factual understanding of our true threat assessments and how those threats will be mitigated in the future so we can make the most informed and purposeful decisions in order to chart the course for the safe harbor our citizens expect and deserve 911 to be.”

An after-action report will be compiled in the coming months.

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