EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can submit questions to the staff.

MOUNT VERNON – Over the past few months, when community members have called the Knox County sheriff’s office non-emergency line, the phone has rung, and rung, and has continued ringing without end.

This was because intermittent equipment malfunctions prevented the phone system from being triggered to take calls, said Kyle Webb, Director for Information Technology services in Knox County 

When equipment fails, which Webb said is often during inclement weather, the correct voltage is not sent through the phone lines and therefore the system does not detect when the phone is ringing. 

“It’s kind of like the old phones, the analog phones, you’d plug them in and the voltage on the line would cause the ringer to go off,” Webb said. “Well, that voltage wasn’t high enough.”

Knox County first detected these equipment failures with its service provider, CenturyLink, around November 2020, but the problem has become more frequent in recent months, Webb said.

“It seems like every time we have a decent storm their systems in that area go down at least partially,” Webb said.

A long-term solution is underway. The county is switching non-emergency services over to Spectrum as well as making certain lines cellular to meet state guidelines for emergency lines. While there is no definitive date when the lines will be fully switched over, Webb expects the process to take approximately one month.

IT has implemented a temporary solution in the interim. It has redirected the sheriff’s office lines to go directly to the service center, Webb said. 

“For right now, we have a workaround so the lines won’t be going down anymore,” Webb said. 

While the non-emergency line is not meant for urgent issues, Webb worries that some high-priority calls went unanswered when the lines were down. 

“Certain people will think a problem isn’t as serious and will call a non-emergency number and maybe it is something they should have called 911 for,” Webb said.

Knox County 911 operations director Laura Webster said there is no way to tell how many calls did not go through.

Police officers usually discovered the phone lines were down when they tried to use the phone system to call the dispatch center and could not get through, Knox County sheriff David Shaffer said. Otherwise, the only other way officers knew lines were down was through direct complaints from community members, Shaffer said. 

Both Shaffer and Webb said the county has had difficulty getting in contact with representatives at CenturyLink when issues arose. 

Mark Molzen, global issues director for Lumen Technologies, the rebrand of CenturyLink, wrote in an email to Knox Pages Thursday that the issue had the company’s full attention.    

“We know people are relying on us to keep our services running,” Molzen wrote. “We’ve identified an intermittent technical issue with the Sheriff department’s non-emergency number and will have a temporary solution in place soon.

“This issue has our full attention and a permanent solution will be in place in the coming weeks.” 

Molzen later wrote Thursday that the company installed a temporary solution. Webb said Friday he was unaware of a solution installed by the provider. The temporary solution of switching the sheriff’s lines to the service center remains in place, he said.

The county got rid of some other CenturyLink lines starting in 2018 but was rebilled for the canceled lines recently, county administrator Jason Booth said. 

“We had noticed on the recent bill that there were some services that we canceled in 2018 and 2019 and they had just kind of randomly started showing back up on the bill for no apparent reason,” Booth said. “So we’re working with their billing department to get those credited back.”

Booth said the CenturyLink service issues have been isolated to the lines by the sheriff’s office. There have not been issues with the fax or 911 phone lines that use CenturyLink, and those lines will not be switched to a different provider, Booth said.

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