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September 911 system outage began with a cut drip-irrigation line in downtown Lincoln



LINCOLN — The accidental cutting of a landscape irrigation line in Lincoln’s Centennial Mall sparked a cascading series of events in September that led to a 4½-hour outage of 911 systems in southeast Nebraska.

That was the testimony Thursday by an executive of Windstream, a telecommunications provider, during a hearing to explore why access to emergency responders was cut off Sept. 2-3 to thousands of customers in southeast Nebraska.

The outage, along with an Aug. 31 outage reported by Omaha-based Lumen, prompted the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s 911 services, to launch an investigation.

Centennial Mall landscaping

Public Service Commission
Members of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, from left, Tim Schram, Christian Mirch and Dan Watermeier, took testimony Thursday Dec. 28, 2023, on a 911 outage that struck southeast Nebraska in September. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

On Thursday, the commission took testimony concerning the Windstream outage in September and another on Nov. 28. A second PSC hearing, on Jan. 4, will take testimony about a 10-hour 911 outage linked to Omaha-based Lumen on Aug. 31.

Brad Hedrick, a regional president for Windstream, told the PSC that a contractor installing a natural gas line accidentally cut a drip-irrigation line, probably on or just after Aug. 28. The line watered landscaping on Centennial Mall, near Windstream’s main office at 14th and M Streets in downtown Lincoln.

The cut wasn’t reported, Hedrick said, and the leaking water eventually made its way into a rarely visited, underground vault holding electric transformers, sparking a fire and an explosion Sept. 2, which led to a power outage at the Windstream office.

“Water on a huge amount of power is bad,” he told the PSC.

Brad Hedrick
Brad Hedrick, a regional president for Windstream, answers questions Thursday about a 911 outage that began at the company’s Lincoln office. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

A backup generator later failed, and then a battery system was drained, leading Windstream to shut down some phone switching equipment that fed emergency calls into 911 centers.

The shutdown, Hedrick said, avoided a total “crash” of the telephone systems and a more widespread outage.

In response to the calamity, he said Windstream has contracted with a Lincoln firm to provide a replacement generator, if needed, closer by. In September, Hedrick said the closest replacement was in Des Moines.

He outlined other changes the company has made to increase redundancy in its equipment and to avoid future 911 outages.

Hedrick told the PSC that the 70-minute outage in November was caused by a manufacturing “bug” in equipment and the failure of an alarm, and that those systems are being replaced.

Fiber optic lines cut

Lumen officials have said that two separate accidental cuts in fiber optic lines in Minneapolis and Omaha on Aug. 31 blocked calls from being received by more than half of the state’s 68 911 centers for about 10 hours.

David Sankey, the PSC’s director of the 911 department, told commissioners Thursday there had been “a number” of similar outages during his seven years in the job.

He has previously said that the 911 centers have been operating properly and that the problem was that calls could not be received by 911 operators during the recent outages.

The Public Service Commission will issue a report on its findings sometime after next week’s hearing.


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