Tennessee emergency communications board investigates 911 impact of Christmas bombing

By: - February 3, 2021 12:49 pm
The facade of the AT&T building damaged by a Christmas Day bomb, photographed Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The facade of the AT&T building damaged by a Christmas Day bomb, photographed Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board will prepare a report in the coming months to determine what went wrong with statewide emergency communications systems following the Christmas morning bombing in downtown Nashville and what can be done in the future to avoid outages for local 911 districts.

Dozens of local governments lost their ability to receive calls and dispatch emergency responders following the bombing. Although 911 districts offered alternative numbers for citizens to call, the outage also affected dispatchers’ ability to send ambulances, fire trucks and police cruisers to the correct addresses.

Meeting on Wednesday for the first time since the bombing, the Emergency Communications Board said it will work with AT&T, which provides the 911 network for the state and local 911 districts, to get a handle on what failed and what redundancies can be implemented in the future should such a cataclysmic event take place.

 

Law enforcement officials have attributed the bombing to a single man, whose RV exploded directly in front of the Second Avenue building where AT&T’s internet and cellular communication infrastructure is stored.

“The events on Christmas morning and the hours that followed certainly provided an emphasis that we must have a fail-proof system,” Emergency Communications Board chairman Phillip Noel said. “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.

“Gaining this factual understanding must and will be done with a realistic and practical understanding that there are additional and vitally important public safety concerns that are competing for similar access, and they have timely decisions to make just like we do.”

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing in the early morning of Friday, December 25, 911 systems and cellular communications remained up and running. Backup generators were also knocked out, affecting the hardware infrastructure that provides the 911 system for much of the state.

Repair crews were able to reconnect generators to restore the power supply by the following Sunday afternoon, when most local 911 districts returned to normal functionality. However, some systems remained offline for a few more days.

Emergency Communications Board members said they wanted to know why a redundancy system they believed was already in place didn’t kick in and prevent the outages that kept 911 lines down for the two days immediately after the bombing.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Emergency Communications Board executive director Curtis Sutton read a Feb. 1 letter from AT&T South President Joelle Phillips outlining the company’s response to the bombing. Phillips reiterated that the downtown building is structurally sound and operational. She said AT&T plans to talk to each local 911 district about how it was affected.

“We are using key learnings from this experience to further evolve our network,” Phillips said in her letter. “As part of that assessment, our team is in the midst of ongoing conversations with (911 districts) across the state working to identify what works and where improvements can be made. We are working through questions on customer communications during event response and recovery, questions related to traffic rerouting and questions related to other opportunities to improve our systems in the face of such devastating attacks.”

Noel, the board chairman, appointed Sutton and vice chairman Steve Martini as board liaisons to work with AT&T in talking to the local 911 districts about how they were impacted and what more could be done in the future.

The after action report will be compiled in the coming months with the hopes of completion in time for the board’s May meeting.

The events on Christmas morning and the hours that followed certainly provided an emphasis that we must have a fail-proof system.

– Phillip Noel, chair, Tennessee Emergency Communications Board

Board members expressed sympathy for AT&T, which sustained heavy damage in the attack, and appreciation for the company’s speedy response to restore its network in the hours after the bombing but also wanted to know why redundancies didn’t kick in to prevent the 911 blackout.

“I’d like to commend AT&T for their response that day to the facility, from quickly sending the right help to getting that power restored to the impacted facility,” Martini said during Wednesday’s meeting. “What Ms. Phillips addresses in her letter is absolutely correct in the fact they sent help that day. The structure of the facility was never impacted or in question, and as soon as it was safe to do so to start connecting generators and other power to that facility and restoring service. They were ready before the fire marshals were ready. They had technicians prepared before it was safe to do so.

“Certainly I was no silent critic of the lack of communication we had with AT&T and the 911 sector in those first several days, and that needs to improve. And we certainly need to have a redundancy conversation, and that needs to improve. I’m hopeful AT&T joins with us with as much vigor and energy as they did responding in those first 72 hours to the site and doing their best to restore power to the affected facility.”

 

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.

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