Nova Scotia

911 service interruption 'a very big concern,' says N.S. EMO minister

Nova Scotia's minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office says Tuesday's two-hour 911 service disruption should never have happened.

Bell Aliant says outage was due to a software update in preparation of 10-digit dialling for N.B.

A closeup shows a hand dialling numbers on a landline phone.
Nova Scotia RCMP says it was experiencing 911 technical difficulties across the province early Tuesday. (NabuPhotoBank/Shutterstock)

Nova Scotia's minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office (EMO) says Tuesday's two-hour 911 service disruption should never have happened.

"We know that when someone calls 911, every second counts and to not be able to get through would be very disconcerting, so it's a very big concern of ours," John Lohr told reporters on Tuesday.

Nova Scotia RCMP had said 911 lines were experiencing technical difficulties across the province. Service was also interrupted for some areas in New Brunswick and P.E.I.

Bell Aliant restored the lines for all three provinces by 9:30 a.m. AT.

In a statement to CBC News, the company said the cause of the outage was a 6 a.m. software update in preparation for 10-digit dialling for New Brunswick, "which triggered an unexpected call processing failure to 9-1-1."

It said the disruption only affected landlines and people could still call 911 from wireless devices.

"Once we realized the issue, we worked to roll back the update to restore services as quickly as possible. We have adjusted our processes and safeguards to ensure that this type of issue will not happen again, including adjusting our test plans for future updates," a spokesperson for Bell Aliant said in an email.

"Outages pertaining to 9-1-1 are rare and receive the full attention of our engineering teams. This current issue was an isolated incident."

Paul Mason, EMO's executive director, said the infrastructure where 911 calls are routed is located in Fredericton with a backup facility in Moncton, N.B., "so that's why the three provinces were impacted."

Outage alerts were sent out across the province to mobile phones, televisions and on the radio, Mason said.

A first for Nova Scotia

RCMP had directed people to contact local emergency services such as police, fire and other services directly. 

Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office had sent out an emergency alert directing people in different parts of the province to the proper emergency numbers if needed.

Lohr said he is not aware of any instances of people not being able to get through to 911 during the outage.

During the conference, Lohr said the outage "was an event never before experienced in our province." However, there was a service disruption in P.E.I. in 2020 that affected parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Mason said while there have been interruptions in telephone service where people had difficulties reaching 911 before, the 911 network continued to operate. What made Tuesday's outage unique, Mason said, is the disruption was on the 911 network.

A man wearing a gray blazer and white shirt sits in front of the Nova Scotia flag.
John Lohr is Nova Scotia's minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office (EMO). (CBC)

"[The 911 network] is a very robust system and we've never had — to my knowledge — an incident like this before, but obviously there was an issue here today and I think that bears looking closely at to see how it can be improved," Mason said.

Ritesh Kotak, a digital and cybersecurity expert, said the network interruption is worrying.

"These are systems that are essentially regulated by the [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission], so the federal government," Kotak told CBC News.

They're supposed to work 100 per cent of the time, not 99 per cent, so any time there's any outage, it's very troublesome."

Kotak said there are multiple redundancies built into a 911 centre so that if one goes down, there are ways to send calls to centres that are open. He said mobile phones could also be used to reach 911, even ones without a SIM card.

Municipalities concerned

Municipal officials are keeping a close eye on developments with the 911 outage.

David Mitchell, the mayor of Bridgewater, N.S., said he was pleased to see an emergency alert went out quickly and that alternate numbers were provided to the public.

"Beyond that emergency alert, almost everyone has a cellphone. I don't know how else you could communicate it more broadly," Mitchell said.

"So I do think there was an understanding of how to get in touch with emergency services. I'll have a deeper conversation with my police chief in the next couple of days to see if calls were coming in and if any gaps were noticed."

David Kogan, the mayor of Amherst, N.S., said he hasn't heard directly from anyone who was affected by the outage, but he said the significance of the service is not lost on him.

"The service, I think, has been pretty good, but it's such a vital service it has to be preserved at all times," Kogon said.



Anjuli Patil


Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.

With files from Tom Murphy, Gareth Hampshire, Josh Hoffman and Angela MacIvor

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