The French government summoned the head of the telecom operator Orange on Thursday over a network outage that left people unable to reach emergency services for hours, possibly causing three deaths.
A person in the western Morbihan region suffering from a heart condition was reported dead after failing to put through an emergency call during the outage that lasted at least six hours on Wednesday night, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said.
While it was not certain that the death was caused directly by long delays in getting through, “what is beyond doubt is that people have told us that they tried calling several times and that they couldn’t get an operator immediately,” he told reporters in Paris.
Two people with cardiovascular conditions in the overseas territory of La Réunion were also reported dead.
Prime Minister Jean Castex, who travelled to Tunisia with Darmanin and digital affairs minister Cedric O on Wednesday, said he had asked both ministers to return to Paris quickly to deal with the crisis.
From Tunisia, Castex on Thursday called the outage “a significant event that we have taken seriously” and from which “we must draw all the necessary consequences.”
Calling the breakdown a “serious and unacceptable malfunction,” Darmanin said that Stephane Richard, the CEO of Orange, France’s biggest telecom company, had been summoned early Thursday to his ministry “to tell us the current state of play.”
The government said many emergency call centres for medical services, police and firefighters across the country were impacted by the outage.
Health Minister Olivier Véran said Wednesday that the incident caused “fairly random breakdowns, with a drop of up to 30 percent in some regions,” and recommended that people call local numbers.
Orange told AFP that a “technical incident on a router had greatly disrupted VoIP [voice over internet protocol] calls in some regions”.
A source close to the matter ruled out any kind of “hacking.”
Apologising for the incident, Orange said Wednesday that its teams had identified the problem and were “fully mobilised to restore services as soon as possible.”
On Thursday, the operator said the network had been up and running again since midnight but was still being monitored, and alternative emergency numbers remained available.
Problems were reported across the country starting from 6 pm (1600 GMT), causing havoc for emergency services.
The head of the Samu-Urgences emergency medical services union Francois Braun said “people were unable to access the service, calls were not coming through, others were cut off in the middle of a conversation.”
He said that almost all of France’s departments were affected, adding that emergency calls usually peak around 7 pm.
“This caused mayhem in the organisation,” said Philippe Juvin, head of emergencies at the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris.
“But there was no panic, and we adapted fast, telling ourselves that it wouldn’t last and that it would be fixed in the night,” he told Radio Classique.
Orange’s competitors Bouygues and Altice, owner of SFR, said on Thursday that they also logged reports of service failures, with sources at both companies ruling out foul play.
The French outage follows similar problems at Belgian operator Proximus in early January, when emergency numbers were disrupted for an entire night.