France probes deaths linked to emergency line outage

·3-min read

A seven-hour breakdown of emergency phone line numbers in France was linked Thursday to up to four deaths, including that of a 63-year-old man who needed an ambulance after suffering a heart attack.

Many distressed people found themselves unable to reach emergency medical, police or fire numbers, or had their calls cut off mid-conversation, from around 5 pm (1500 GMT) until midnight on Wednesday.

National telecom operator Orange has acknowledged responsibility for the problems, with chief executive Stephane Richard offering his "deepest apologies" after being summoned to the interior ministry to explain the breakdown.

An investigation has been opened in the western Morbihan region after a man who had suffered a heart attack died in hospital in the town of Vannes after being driven there by his spouse.

The patient and his family tried several times to call an ambulance on the usual number, local officials and the prosecutor's office said, though the hospital said it was too early to blame the delays as the cause of death.

"The evidence does not enable us to reach any firm conclusions," Philippe Couturier, head of the Bretagne Atlantique hospital, told reporters.

The death of a two-year-old toddler in the nearby Vendee region is also being investigated, as are the deaths of two people with heart conditions on the island of La Reunion, officials announced.

"We are going to look around, from area to area, at all the dramatic situations that might have had consequences before going public with everything," Health Minister Olivier Veran told reporters.

The turmoil came with France still in its third coronavirus wave, with around 8,000 new cases and 70 deaths in hospital reported in the last 24 hours.

- 'Unacceptable' -

France has separate numbers for ambulances, police and fire services -- 15, 17, and 18 -- as well as a universal European emergency number, 112.

Orange said it had suffered a problem with a router that receives calls to these shortened emergency numbers and transfers them to local call centres, which use regular 10-digit phone lines.

"We have no indication which leads us to think that it could be an external attack," CEO Richard told TF1 television, adding that the cause was most likely "software failure in critical network infrastructure".

The impact of the breakdown varied from region to region, with the hard-hit city of Lyon in the southwest reporting a reduction in calls for ambulances of 50-70 percent, Veran said.

Orange, which was formerly the state monopoly France Telecom, said its network had been functioning normally since midnight, but problems were still being reported from around a dozen areas in France on Thursday, according to the health minister.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who cut short an official trip to Tunisia over the outage, condemned "serious and unacceptable dysfunctions".

- 'No panic' -

The French breakdown follows similar problems at Belgian operator Proximus in early January, which led to emergency numbers being disrupted for an entire night.

In June 2019, the Dutch national telecoms carrier KPN was to blame for a four-hour outage of the 112 emergency line, which is used by all 27 EU states alongside local numbers.

The year before, US telecoms group CenturyLink suffered a massive technical failure that affected ATM withdrawals, 911 calls and other services.

Medics in France said the disruption to ambulance services had caused severe problems, with demand for emergency services tending to peak in the early evening.

"This caused mayhem in our organisation," Philippe Juvin, head of emergencies at the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris, told Radio Classique.

"But there was no panic, and we adapted fast, telling ourselves that it wouldn't last and that it would be fixed during the night," he said.

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