A network outage crippled Virginia State Police for five hours Thursday, leaving the force unable to perform background checks, run fingerprints or register sex offenders.
State police reported the problem to the Virginia Information Technologies Agency around 1:30 p.m., spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. The network remained down until around 6:30 p.m., when most features were restored. In the meantime, troopers didn't know if the person they pulled over was wanted by police, if the car was stolen or if the person was a known criminal. It also meant those who went to purchase firearms were turned away because dealers couldn't perform the necessary background checks.
It's the latest in series of periodic outages and snafus involving the state's computer system, which is run by VITA through a 10-year, $2.4 billion contract with Northrop Grumman Corp.
In April, State Police lost internal and external communication capabilities for a week during a software update. A much larger server failure idled at least two dozen state agencies for several days in 2010. Some services, like getting drivers licenses and paying taxes, were unavailable for a week.
An audit later found that Northrop Grumman had not planned for the memory board failure and ignored industry best practices, leading to data loss and the delay in restoration.
A Northrup Grumman spokesman deferred questions to VITA, which said the outage was the result of a network switch failing at State Police headquarters.
“Anytime something in public safety fails, it's all hands on deck,” state computer chief Samuel A. Nixon Jr. said.
While he said he was not making any excuses for the disruption, he said the computer network's “footprint is enormous.”
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment from one end of the state to the other that we are responsible for,” Nixon said.
The outage crippled the Virginia Criminal Information Network, which serves nearly 700 agencies in Virginia and outside the state. It stores information relating to wanted and missing persons, sex offenders, stolen vehicles and protective orders, among other information.
Last year, the network completed more than 416 million transactions.
While the outage may have halted gun sales, Virginia law allows for a remedy in case the computer problem persisted. Anyone who was turned away Thursday could have been able to buy a firearm without a background check if the system had remained offline for three days.
The computer system contract is the largest with a single vendor in Virginia's history. Since VITA was established to oversee the contract in 2003, both the agency and the company have been criticized by lawmakers and legislative review boards for cost overruns, service outages, slow services and delays that have paralyzed state agencies.