Nationwide emergency number outage unnecessarily chaotic: Inspectorate

Call center operator
Call center operator Photo: DmitryPoch/DepositPhotos

A nationwide outage of emergency number 1-1-2 last June would have been much less chaotic if the Ministry of Justice and Security had stepped in and taken control of the situation sooner, was the main conclusion of a report published by the Inspectorate of Justice and Security, the telecom agency AT, and the Inspectorate for Healthcare and Youth about the incident. The minister in charge of the incident, Ferd Grapperhaus, said the report was "firm and painful," and that the situation was "ultimately my responsibility."

On June 24, 2019, emergency number 1-1-2 went offline from around 3:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. due to a nationwide disruption in KPN's telephone network. As a result, the emergency services could not be reached through the number for hours - the largest outage of this type in Dutch history. At the same time, there also happened to be a malfunction in KPN's 4G network, which is used to send emergency messages to the public regionally and nationally via the NL-Alert system. As a result, when the government sent out an NL-Alert to warn citizens of the 1-1-2 outage, the emergency notification did not reach KPN customers using the 4G network.

The NL-Alert messages people did receive were also confusing, the Justice Inspectorate said. Alerts were issued on national and regional levels, people received messages for the wrong region, and the many Alerts sent at the same time resulted in some only being received hours after being sent. What added to the chaos, is that a tipline for newspaper De Telegraaf was accidentally used in one NL-Alert, instead of the correct alternative number to reach the police.

"Communication with the population during the outage was chaotic," the Justice Inspectorate summarized in its conclusions. And that could have been avoided if the Ministry had taken control of the situation sooner, instead of leaving the various regions to decide for themselves what Alerts to send.

Regrettably, Grapperhaus said, "at the ministry a number of people were not immediately alert." He continued that his staff was unaware of which steps to take to handle the situation, according to newswire ANP. 

During the outage, the healthcare authorities worked together to deploy additional personnel and alternative ways of being reached. The Healthcare Inspectorate received no reports of calamities during this period. Three people died during the outage, but according to the Inspectorate, it is not possible to say whether a delay in the start of care provision had an influence on their deaths.

According to AT, the confluence of circumstances that led to the outage could not have been foreseen and were therefore not taken into account beforehand. The telecom agency did advise KPN to take organizational and technical measures to prevent similar failures in the future, or at least minimize their impact. 

The minister said that while he cannot rule out another incident similar to the one last year, but that a new strategy is in place to effectively deal with a similar communications outage in a coordinated manner.