What to do when 911 calls can’t get through

Anchborage Police squad cars
Anchorage Police Department vehicles, May 25, 2016. (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Last weekend, many emergency calls to 911 in Anchorage were not working. Police and fire officials in the city tried to alert the public, encouraging cellphone users to dial an alternate number or use a landline.

The problem stemmed from a damaged fiber optic line in the Lower 48, according to a spokesperson for Alaska Communications, the company affected.

The outage left some wondering what they should do if they can’t get through to emergency responders with a cellphone, since for many people it’s the only phone they have.

In Alaska, 42% of households still have a landline, according to Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association.

“One reason is they tend to be more resilient,” O’Connor said. “Depending on what kind of natural disaster you might have, you’re going to find that a landline still has power, even if the power is out, and a lot of people like that feature.”

Across the country, 911 systems struggle with calls from cellphones. One reason is that smartphones and apps change more rapidly than the analog phone systems upon which most 911 systems are built.

Journalists and the Federal Communications Commission have documented hundreds of instances where emergency call systems have failed for mobile phone users.

O’Connor has some advice: Just like planning for an emergency in which food, water or fuel become scarce, Alaskans should figure out a plan for communication devices, she said.

“Just be aware of what kind of service you have, and whether it works when the power is out,” she said. “Just understanding how your phone service is going to work in an emergency is probably the best thing.”

People can also reach emergency responders through their 10-digit, non-emergency phone number. That’s something you may want to write down and store in the contacts of your phone, in case the 911 system isn’t working but you need to contact police or fire officials.

In Juneau, the main number for the Juneau Police Department is 907-586-0600. The main number for Capital City Fire/Rescue is 907-586-5322.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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