S.D. 911 panel sues three companies for fraud

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State government filed a civil lawsuit Friday claiming fraud by three related companies that were involved since 2014 in South Dakota’s “next generation” 911 project.

The suit alleges the companies were responsible for a series of 911 failures in October and December that led dispatch centers to flee the new system.

The companies are the contract-holder, NextGen Communications Inc., a subsidiary of TeleCommunication Systems Inc., based in Annapolis, Maryland, and their corporate parent, Comtech Communications Corp. of Wilmington, Delaware.

The lawsuit asks that a state circuit judge ensure 911 service isn’t interrupted while South Dakota moves to a new vendor. The dispatch centers, known as public service answering points or PSAPs, have gone back to the legacy system they used prior to the outages.

The state 911 Coordination Board met by teleconference Friday morning to discuss taking legal action. After a 30-minute closed session, board members re-opened the meeting to the public and voted 9-0 to proceed with the lawsuit.

Pierre Mayor Steve Harding is a board member. He spoke in favor of taking action.

“This is a complicated contract,” Harding told other board members on the call. He noted payments had already been cut in half since April. “I think it’s in the best interest of the state,” he said.

The 911 board decided in June to contract with CenturyLink. The existing contract with NextGen Communications has been in place since 2014 and is set to expire later this year.

The lawsuit alleges that NextGen Communications began in 2015 to fail to provide satisfactory service.

The first trouble apparent to the public came the morning of December 14, 2016, when Canton, Mitchell, Pierre, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Watertown dispatch centers weren’t able to answer 911 calls.

That afternoon, the same problem hit Deadwood, Huron, Mobridge, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Watertown.

There were more outages in March and April of 2017, according to the lawsuit.

State government withheld payment in May 2017, but oversaw conversion of the locally-managed dispatch centers to the contractor’s new system in mid-2018.

The new system didn’t work long. Nineteen dispatch centers in eastern South Dakota found October 15-16 they couldn’t process 911 calls.

“No alarms existed or sounded to indicate that the PSAPs in eastern South Dakota could not receive 9-1-1 calls,” the suit said.

CenturyLink stepped in and started routing 911 calls to administrative phone lines at those centers.

Affected were Bon Homme, Brown County, Central South Dakota (Pierre), Charles Mix County, Clay Area, Huron Police, Lake County, Lincoln County, Marshall County, Miner County, Mitchell Regional, Moody County, North Central Regional (Mobridge), Roberts County, Spink County, Union County, Watertown, Winner (through Sioux Falls) and Yankton, according to the lawsuit.

Western South Dakota’s 911 service blacked out October 27. Unable to receive 911 calls that day were dispatch centers based in Butte County, Custer County, Fall River County, Lawrence County, Meade County, Pennington County and Spearfish Police.

Charles Mix, Moody County and Watertown lost 911 service December 16.

All left the new NextGen system, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyer Paul Bachand asked that the trial judge determine how much the companies owe South Dakota. The companies now get to respond.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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