Cyber Attack Suspected in Erie County 911 Failure Sunday Night
Erie News Now has learned that it was a suspected cyber attack that prevented people from being able to call in to the Erie County 9-1-1 emergency center from cellular phones Sunday night.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Erie County Department of Safety officials said it appears to be a cyber attack or at least what they are calling an intentional DOS - denial of service attack.
What prevented cell phone calls from getting through to the 911 center Sunday night between 8:55 and 10:45 p.m. was a steady stream of calls coming in from one specific non-initialized or deactivated mobile phone every 7-seconds, about 750 calls in all.
According to John Durlin, 911 Coordinator for the Erie County Department of Public Safety, the calls came into the 911 center through cellular phone towers in the city of Erie. He declined to identify a specific location, but said that information has been turned over to the authorities.
By FCC regulations, a cell phone that is not associated with an active account can still be used to call 911 in an emergency. Such phones are sometimes used by domestic abuse victims, for example.
The high volume of bogus calls spilled over into Elk County, which serves to handle an overflow of Erie County calls when needed. When the back up location could no longer take incoming calls from cell phones, staff at the Erie County 911 center knew that something was amiss.
This suspected attack comes less than a month after Erie County's 911 Center was connected to Pennsylvania's next gen 911 emergency services network - a system which connects all 67 Pennsylvania counties through internet protocols, replacing copper phone lines.
Durlin and Erie County Safety Director John Grappy both emphasize that the cyber or DOS attack could have happened with the traditional system as well, but the new system gave them important ways to work around it.
"It definitely concerns us that somebody in an emergency with a cell phone couldn't reach 911," Durlin said. "The benefit of next generation 911 is that traffic is segregated so that we could isolate the incoming influx of wireless calls and people could still call from a land line."
During the service outage people could still text to 911, call from a land line, or call the center's 10-digit number 814-868-7911 from any type of phone. Erie News Now helped Erie County put the word out through an information crawl on television, on the web and on our news casts. The Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, used for Amber Alerts also sent out messages about the problem and the fix.
"The systems that we have in place worked as they were intended, that allowed us to continue to work with the state and their partners to identify what the problem was and then resolved that as quickly as possible," Grappy said.
Safety officials say attacks like this have happened at other 911 centers across the country. In case it happens again here, to be prepared, they suggest that you put their 10-digit number in your phone, along with local police and fire department numbers.