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AT&T provides no explanation to regulators about 911 failures after the Nashville bombing

christmas day bombing
Posted at 3:55 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 16:55:16-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — More than five weeks after the Christmas Day bombing in downtown Nashville crippled 911 services across Tennessee and beyond, we are no closer to understanding what really happened to AT&T's 911 relay system and why the emergency communications system failed as it did.

Within days of the blast, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board which oversees 911 systems in the state announced a special meeting to be held Jan. 4 where "the Board will be addressing the impact to 911 operations as a result of the bombing in Downtown Nashville." According to the posted agenda of that meeting, the Board wanted explanations about the widespread 911 outages and the failure of "Geo Redundancy."

Multiple sources tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that board members were under the belief that AT&T's system had a redundancy program in place where if Nashville's hub went down, calls, specifically 911 calls would immediately and automatically be transferred to a similar set up in East Tennessee so 911 calls centers would not be impacted by the outage.

Yet, almost as quickly as the Board called that emergency meeting, it was suddenly canceled. The cancellation notice explained that this was "intended to allow AT&T to prioritize the needs of affected Tennesseans and focus its resources on continuing to restore service and repair its facilities."

Meanwhile, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has been told, there were plenty of behind the scenes discussions as the Emergency Communications team sought answers.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked on January 3rd for emails of Curtis Sutton, the Executive Director of the state's ECB, related to the explosion and 911 service during the week between the explosion and the cancellation of the meeting. More than a month later, the Tennessee Commerce and Insurance Department has still not released them. We asked recently-appointed Commissioner Carter Lawrence why his department appeared to be stalling the release of public records and got no response.

When the Board canceled the specially called Jan. 4 meeting, it noted that it expected that "AT&T representatives will be in attendance to provide updates and respond to questions" at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, February 3rd.

Yet, no AT&T representatives appeared to be at that meeting. None was introduced nor did anyone from the communications company speak during the section of the meeting devoted to the explosion and its aftermath.

Instead, director Sutton read a letter aloud sent by AT&T TN President Joelle Phillips. The one and a half page letter did not explain what led to the breakdown on Dec. 25 but described how AT&T is having individual discussions with each separate 911 system directly about how the explosion and related outage impacted them.

Phillips went on to say, "We are working through questions on customer communications during event response and recovery, questions related to traffic re-routing, and questions related to other opportunities to improve our systems in the face of such devastating attacks."

What the letter also did not address was the apparent lack of redundancy in AT&T's system.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has been told that AT&T denies that its system offered any type of redundancy.

But following the reading of the letter board member Greg Cothron said the lack of redundancy is his primary concern.

"I really do wish I had the way back machine to recall the conversations that I’ve had with AT&T, in particular about that location and concerns about the potential and the operational vulnerabilities of its location and I just had a recollection that the issue of redundancy for any type of cataclysmic event occurring I thought I was told that it would switch like that," Cothron explained.

Steve Martini, Metro Nashville's Director of Emergency Communications, who is also a member of the TECB, immediately spoke up and said Cothron was "absolutely right" in his recollection.

Martini shared that he "had that same confidence" that there was redundancy that would protect the state's 911 systems from failure after the explosion.

"I had that same expectation as you did that of implementing our alternate route plan would keep us in the clear for 911 statewide," Martini said in comments directed to Cothron.

Martini added that he was expecting more information to be forthcoming.

"That’s definitely a conversation that I’m looking forward to engaging in with AT&T," he said.

In her letter, Phillips invited the TECB to select a representative to join the phone company in its discussions with 911 systems about what went wrong and what went right in the aftermath of the bombing. Martini and director Sutton were selected to be part of those talks.

The TECB also is conducting its own review of what it did following the explosion.

Updates from that review as well as AT&T's continuing work are expected at the Board's next regularly scheduled meeting in May.