Some Lyon Park residents have expressed concern about Arlington’s 911 system after waiting on hold while calling in last Wednesday’s house fire on N. Highland Street. Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, however, says everything worked just as it was supposed to.
Some callers reported hearing a recorded message while they were put on hold for several minutes, according to an ARLnow.com tipster. OEM Director Jack Brown confirmed that there were callers who heard a message asking them to stay on the line while the system was flooded with calls. Anyone who hung up was then called back to verify that they were safe and to check if they still needed emergency assistance, exactly like any other 911 hang up.
“It’s not an overburden for us, it’s just very busy in the initial stages of an emergency,” said Emergency Communications Center Commander John Crawford. “The system was working and the people were working. The only issue we get is when lots of people call all at once.”
Crawford explained that Arlington’s 911 call center has a minimum of 10 people staffing it at all times. Typically, calls immediately go through to a staffer. But when an emergency occurs, such as during the Lyon Park fire, there are so many calls that each one cannot be answered immediately.
“The phones just literally lit up. We knew it was something significant,” Crawford said. “If 10 people call 911, the eleventh person is going to get a pre-recorded message asking them to hold. We purposely put that recording in there because in years past the phone would just ring and ring, and people would question if they called the right number.”
The automatic call distribution system immediately sends holding callers to the first available staff member as soon as a line frees up. Once information is gathered from the first couple of callers, the rest of the calls typically move more quickly. Staffers make every effort to gather information from each caller as rapidly as possible to avoid missing an emergency.
“You never know, that eleventh call or twelfth call might be someone in a horrific accident on G.W. Parkway not related to the fire, so we have to go through every call as quickly as possible,” said Crawford. “I have to talk to you but I don’t have to talk to you long. To some people it may sound rude, but I need to cut to the chase and get the info I need and then hang up the phone.”
Crawford noted that Arlington’s 911 call center received significant upgrades five years ago, including expanding the number of phone lines from 16 to 48. Improvements have been made to prevent the system from “locking up” as it did during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
“On 9/11, the phones rang and lit up so quick that it locked the system up. Literally hundreds. We couldn’t even get to them,” said Crawford.
9/11 also put into play the rare “code red” alert that gets sent out to staff pagers and phones, ordering them back to work to help with a large emergency. With the additional lines that have been added since that time, the center could now have 48 call takers working at the same time — one for each phone line.
“Thank God, other than a couple of disasters I know of, we haven’t had need to upstaff to that degree,” said Crawford.
Arlington’s 911 center does add extra staff members during anticipated busy times, such as weekend nights and planned events like races. However, on the average day, the 10 or so call takers need to deal with any incidents that arise.
Crawford noted that it’s important for people to continue to call when they see or hear something occur because you never know if another person will call or not. He asks residents to be patient if they’re put on hold during a flood of calls, and promises the call takers are doing the best they can.
“We work for the citizens, those are our customers,” Crawford said. “We try to provide the best possible customer service to them.”
The matter of keeping up with current technology is prompting county workers to investigate whether Arlington’s 911 system can soon upgrade and add a texting option. While it appears texting eventually will be added to the mix, it isn’t imminent.
“Certainly texting is something we want to get to, especially when someone is in a compromised position where they can’t talk on the phone,” said Arlington County Office of Emergency Management Director Jack Brown. “It’s something I believe is in the future.”
A few communities across the country — such as parts of Tennessee, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont — have implemented or are experimenting with “Next Generation 911.” The Federal Communications Commission — which in 2010 held a press conference at Arlington’s Emergency Communication Center touting Next Gen 911 technology — announced in December that the top four cell phone carriers in America agreed to speed up the availability of the service, ensuring that 90 percent of the country’s cell phone users would have the capability by May 2014.
Although cell phones will be enabled for emergency texting, few 911 dispatch centers have the ability to receive texts. The Next Gen 911 systems are largely in their infancy and gaps exist to such a degree that officials in Arlington prefer to wait until the technology becomes further perfected.
“We want to put our money and time into the right place the first time,” said Emergency Communications Center (ECC) Deputy Commander Jeff Horwitz. “Prematurely, a resource could be more harmful than waiting to release it. So we’re really nervous about people sending texts to 911 before it’s ready.”
The current programs do not have provisions to allow 911 dispatchers to immediately determine a text sender’s location like they can with a phone call. Some communities moved forward with the texting system even without the ability to pinpoint where an emergency occurred, but Arlington is not willing to take that risk. Additionally, the texting system doesn’t allow dispatchers to determine if a person is quietly awaiting more instructions or if the emergency has resolved itself.
“When you hang up, our system knows you dropped a call. When you text, I don’t know when you’re done. Are you there? Are you being attacked? Are you unconscious? I don’t have any info telling me your call is dropped,” Horwitz said.
Perhaps the most pressing concern surrounding emergency texting is the inability to communicate immediately with callers. Although situations arise in which callers cannot speak to dispatchers, such instances are relatively rare. Typically, dispatchers are able to get more information from callers, soothe them and even offer potentially life saving assistance. It would prove far more difficult for dispatchers to help someone administer CPR, for example, if the person attempted to text while doing chest compressions.
“We really like to be able to talk to the people,” Brown said. “I can just envision someone texting 911 and someone trying to text back instructions. We haven’t worked that out yet.”
Both Horwitz and Brown stressed that implementing a flawed system could prove disastrous. Arlington had a glimpse into the seriousness of a failed 911 system during last year’s derecho, and nobody is interested in repeating that type of scenario.
From fires to health scares to severe storms, emergencies can occur at any time and being prepared is key. Arlington County is offering free classes to train residents how to help themselves and others if an emergency occurs.
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training began 10 years ago in Arlington and 575 residents have completed the program in that time. The hands-on training covers topics such as disaster preparedness, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, team organization, disaster psychology, fire suppression and terrorism.
One example of what CERT members do was evident last June during the derecho. Members assisted the community in various capacities immediately following the storm, often as points of contact when calls weren’t getting through to 911.
“We had people strategically posted at fire stations to dispatch the right help to where it was needed,” said Arlington County Office of Emergency Management Director Jack Brown. “The community response teams, CERT, they really stepped up to the plate.”
There are two training sessions scheduled for next month, one beginning on March 7 and the other on March 12. Each session includes eight classes which will meet on six weeknights and two Saturdays. All classes meet at the Arlington County Fire Department Training Academy in Shirlington and are taught by ACFD and Office of Emergency Management staff, as well as active duty CERT members.
Advance registration is required to participate in the classes, and there are still some spots left for the March training. Those interested should email the program’s volunteer coordinator, Cynthia Kellams, at ArlingtonCERT@gmail.com. Participants must be Arlington residents who are at least 18 years old.
Flight Makes Emergency Landing at DCA — A US Airways Express flight had to make an emergency landing at Reagan National Airport this morning (Wednesday) due to a cracked windshield. The plane was minutes into its flight from DCA to Raleigh/Durham International Airport when it had to turn around. Nobody was injured. [WJLA]
Plastic Bag Tax Defeated — Sen. Adam Ebbin’s proposal to tax single-use plastic bags in grocery and convenience stores has been defeated in the state Senate. Had the bill passed, it would have imposed a five cent tax on every plastic bag distributed by retail establishments. [Sun Gazette]
Potomac CrossFit to Re-open in Courthouse — After closing last year to make way for a new development in Clarendon, Potomac Crossfit has found a new home. The new 9,000 square foot location will be located at 1320 N. Courthouse Road, Suite 100. It is expected to open in May. [Potomac CrossFit]
Arlington County activated its Emergency Operations Center in the wake of Friday’s derecho.
A new video posted by the county’s Arlington Virginia Network shows a behind-the-scenes view from inside the EOC during the storm recovery effort.
Update at 8:00 p.m. — The number of Dominion customers without power in Arlington has dipped below 50,000 — as of 7:55 p.m. it stands at 49,921 — for the first time since the storm. That’s down from the peak of 68,000 customers without power in the county immediately after the Friday night storm.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan earlier released a statement about the cleanup effort.
“It will take several days for life to get back to normal,” she said. “We urge people to stay out of the heat, stay hydrated, drive safely and check on their neighbors.”
Update at 4:55 p.m. — Long lines have been reported at local gas stations, with at least two stations even reportedly running out of gas. Many local grocery stores have also sold out of ice. The Pentagon City food court was very crowded as of 2:00 this afternoon, with many using it as a refuge.
Update at 4:35 p.m. – Arlington County is urging residents to check on neighbors, especially ”those who are elderly or who have limited mobility.” If their homes are hot due to a lack of air conditioning, the county recommends taking them to a local cooling center (see list, below).
Also, the county is advising those without phone service to go to a local fire station if unable to dial 911.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan declared a local emergency for Arlington around 12:30 p.m.
Earlier: The powerful storm that ripped through the region last night has left about 60 percent of Arlington County without power, according to authorities.
Winds of up to 70 miles per hour caused widespread damage across Arlington last night. Trees and large branches fell across roads and highways, utility lines were knocked down, newspaper boxes and other debris was blown into streets, and some roofs were damaged. Facing hundreds of calls, police and firefighters were often limited to simply placing cones, police tape and flares around downed trees in the roadway. In one instance, however, a half dozen residents helped two police officers remove a tree from the southbound lanes of George Mason Drive near Pershing Drive.
As of 4:30 p.m., Dominion was reporting 51,101 customers without power in Arlington, down from 58,878 customers just after noon. Though Dominion was not providing estimates of when power will be restored, county officials said it could be a while.
“It appears that it may be a number of days before power is fully restored,” the county told reporters. As a result of the power outages, Arlington has closed all three of its publicly-accessible pools. Some 80 traffic signals were dark as of this morning; drivers are reminded to treat non-functioning traffic lights as a four-way stop.
The power outages and downed trees are also affecting Metro. While WMATA says most of the Metro system is operating normally, a power outage at Courthouse station has prompted Metro to close the station and set up bus service between Rosslyn and Clarendon. Some Metrobus service has been detoured or delayed by downed trees, including the 7A, 7F, 16A and 16B lines.
Cell phone service was also spotty in parts of the county — including the Courthouse, Clarendon and Columbia Pike areas — and a number of Twitter users were reporting a loss of cable and landline phone service. Arlington County says its non-emergency number (703-558-2222) is experiencing problems, but is still encouraging residents to call 911 only in the event of an emergency.
With another heat advisory in effect today (see below), Arlington has started compiling a list of cooling centers for residents without power. Along the places to take refuge are:
- Artisphere (1101 Wilson Blvd)
- Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th Street S.)
- Madison Community Center (3829 N. Stafford Street)
- Dept. Parks & Rec Trades Center (S. Taylor Street, just off S. Arlington Mill Dr.)
- Pentagon City Mall (1250 S. Hayes St.)
- Aurora Hills Library (735 S. 18th St.)
- Central Library (1015 N. Quincy St.)
The National Weather Service issued the following Heat Advisory for today:
HEAT ADVISORY IN EFFECT UNTIL 9 PM EDT THIS EVENING… … EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING IS CANCELLED…
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN BALTIMORE MD/WASHINGTON HAS ISSUED A HEAT ADVISORY… WHICH IS IN EFFECT UNTIL 9 PM EDT THIS EVENING. THE EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING HAS BEEN CANCELLED.
* HEAT INDEX VALUES… 100 TO 105 DEGREES.
* TEMPERATURES… IN THE MID TO UPPER 90S.
* IMPACT… RISK OF HEAT EXHAUSTION OR OTHER HEAT-RELATED ILLNESS FOR THOSE WITHOUT AIR-CONDITIONING OR THOSE SPENDING TIME OUTDOORS FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD.
A HEAT ADVISORY MEANS THAT A PERIOD OF HOT TEMPERATURES IS EXPECTED. THE COMBINATION OF HOT TEMPERATURES AND HIGH HUMIDITY WILL CREATE A SITUATION IN WHICH HEAT ILLNESSES ARE POSSIBLE. DRINK PLENTY OF FLUIDS… STAY IN AN AIR-CONDITIONED ROOM… STAY OUT OF THE SUN… AND CHECK IN ON RELATIVES AND NEIGHBORS.
TAKE EXTRA PRECAUTIONS IF YOU WORK OR SPEND TIME OUTSIDE. WHEN POSSIBLE… RESCHEDULE STRENUOUS ACTIVITIES TO EARLY MORNING OR EVENING. KNOW THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF HEAT EXHAUSTION AND HEAT STROKE. WEAR LIGHTWEIGHT AND LOOSE-FITTING CLOTHING WHEN POSSIBLE AND DRINK PLENTY OF WATER.
TO REDUCE RISK DURING OUTDOOR WORK… THE OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION RECOMMENDS SCHEDULING FREQUENT REST BREAKS IN SHADED OR AIR-CONDITIONED ENVIRONMENTS. ANYONE OVERCOME BY HEAT SHOULD BE MOVED TO A COOL AND SHADED LOCATION. HEAT STROKE IS AN EMERGENCY – CALL 9 1 1.
According to the Capital Weather Gang, another line of severe storms is possible later today.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has declared a State of Emergency for the state. According to the governor’s office, 2.5 million people are without power throughout Virginia — the largest non-hurricane power outage in Virginia history. The governor’s office also confirmed six fatalities as a result of falling trees during the storm.
Photos below courtesy Brian W., Brendan L., Jason G., Breandan M., @maureenhoch, @Aggathug, @Wink303, @acsjacobson, @Greg_Hudson, @whitae4000, Keith H., @snowbrdchick99, @SRod17, @KenHagemann, @gogogaryo
Arlington County has been working on various ways to help residents prepare for an emergency, to get information during an emergency, and to evacuate in the event of a major emergency.
In the video above, county officials discuss several initiatives, including the Arlington Prepares smartphone app, Arlington Alert emails and text messages, and permanent electronic message signs that will eventually be installed along Route 50 and other major local roads.
Also discussed: the county’s state-of-the-art traffic management center, which can adjust the timing of Arlington 282 traffic signals in the event of a weather emergency or an evacuation.
Bicyclists hoping for a new way to get from Columbia Pike to Pentagon City without having to navigate the tricky eastern end of the Pike will have to keep waiting. A plan to build a bike and pedestrian path from the Arlington View neighborhood to Army Navy Drive is still on hold until additional engineering plans and project funding can be procured.
In June 2010, the Arlington County Board approved a plan for Army Navy County Club to build a new four-story clubhouse. As part of the approval process, the club agreed to grant the county an easement which would allow a 30-foot-wide emergency access road and bike/pedestrian path to be built from S. Queen Street, near Hoffman-Boston Elementary, to the I-395 underpass that leads from Army Navy Drive to the club.
The primary motivation for the new road, county officials emphasized, is a need for more north-south connections across I-395 for emergency vehicles.
“There are very few places along the 395 corridor in Arlington where we actually have an underpass, or a way to get from one site of the highway to another without going through an interchange,” says Arlington County Director of Transportation Dennis Leach. “So it’s incredibly valuable…. for emergency response purposes.”
As a side benefit, though, Leach said the path will be “a real benefit to the community” in terms of providing better access for cyclists and pedestrians.
Despite the positives, the project hasn’t gone very far. First, Leach says, more detailed engineering plans need to be drawn up. Then funding needs to be procured through the county’s Capital Improvement Plan and bond referendum process. An early engineering study, conducted in 2010, suggested that the project would require very high retaining walls to compensate for the steep hill the access facility must run along. The cost of such a construction project was expected to exceed $3 million, we’re told.
Leach declined to speculate as to when the access road might eventually be built. He also declined to comment about a 2010 lawsuit filed by disgruntled members of Army Navy Country Club who objected to a bike path being built along one of the holes at their golf course.
A call to Army Navy Country Club for comment was not returned. The club’s then-general manager, who wrote a letter to the editor in support of the emergency access and bike path in 2010, is no longer employed at the club, according to a woman who answered the phone there.
Earlier this week, County Manager Barbara Donnellan admitted to the County Board that Arlington’s emergency radio station, 1700 AM, “occasionally went down during critical periods recently” and was difficult to pick up at other times.
Which “critical periods” was she referring to? One ARLnow.com commenter said that he was unable to hear the station during the weekend of Hurricane Irene. There was also the matter of recent earthquakes, flash floods and threats of terrorist attacks.
The Sun Gazette reports that Donnellan promised the Board “regular staff checks to ensure the station is on the air.” But is anybody else listening?
Arlington County has released a list of important phone numbers for residents during Hurricane Irene.
- POWER OUTAGES: Dominion Virginia Power 1-866-DOM-HELP (1-866-366-4357)
- NATURAL GAS EMERGENCIES: Washington Gas 703-750-1400 or 800-752-7520. If you smell gas, leave and call 9-1-1.
- TREES DOWN: 703-228-6525
- STREET FLOODING, water, sewer and storm-sewer: 703-228-6555
- TRAFFIC SIGNAL OUTAGES: 703-228-6511
According to a television station in Charleston, S.C., the plane landed at Charleston International Airport after experiencing severe turbulence.
Two passengers and a flight attendant were treated for minor injuries in Charleston, news outlets reported.
Trail Parking – This car chose an interesting place to park — on a stretch of trail between the county’s new Dept. of Human Services building and Washington Boulevard.
Snakehead Fish Invade Four Mile Run — Predatory snakehead fish have invaded the waters of Four Mile Run, between Arlington and Alexandria. There’s concern that the so-called “frankenfish” could kill off native fish in the stream, as it has decimated native populations of bass and shad in the Potomac. [WJLA]
Marymount Names New President – Arlington’s Marymount University has named a successor for retiring president James Bundschuh. Matthew Shank, dean of the business school at the University of Dayton, will take over as president in July. [Washington Post]
Cell Phones to Get Emergency Alerts — Soon, cell phones in the D.C. area will be capable of receiving emergency alerts via text message. [New York Times]
Gaslight Square Condos Selling Quickly — McWilliams|Ballard and Abdo Development have sold nearly $12 million worth of luxury condos at the still-under-construction Gaslight Square project between Rosslyn and Courthouse. [Marketwire]
CERT Graduates Number 500 — The Arlington Community Emergency Response Team program graduated its 500th resident on Saturday. CERT says this weekend’s graduating class of citizen emergency responders was their largest one yet.
More on Mala Tang — Rebecca Cooper, formerly of TBD.com, takes a look at Mala Tang, the new Chinese “hot pot” restaurant near Clarendon. Unanswered question: are there enough potential customers who are willing to sit down and learn the hot pot process — and who don’t mind their meal getting “a little messy?” [Washingtonian]
Empty Shelves at Papery — Is Papery in Clarendon merely restocking its supply of stationary products, or is it in danger of closing? The store says they’re “making way for new stock.” [Clarendon Culture]
Elementary Students Run TV Show – Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy’s “Snapshots” TV segment visits the televised morning announcements show run by Henry Elementary students. [AETV]
Do you have any ideas for ways Arlington County can improve its emergency preparedness? If so, the county’s Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission wants to hear from you.
The commission will be holding a public forum from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10, in the county board room at 2100 Clarendon Boulevard, to gather “public input on preparedness and the County’s handling of emergency events.”
The forum is intended to coincide with the upcoming 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“How would you rate the County’s handling of snowstorms and other disasters since 9/11,” the commission will ask residents. “Do you consider yourself better prepared for emergencies today than you were 10 years ago?”
Arlington will be testing its outdoor warning systems in Rosslyn, Courthouse and Pentagon City this morning.
Between 10:00 a.m. and noon, the county’s Office of Emergency Management will sound a series of three loud beeps in each area, followed by a voice broadcast in English and Spanish.
Today is Tornado Preparedness Day in Virginia, with a statewide tornado drill scheduled for 9:45 a.m. A test tornado warning will be broadcast on television and radio stations, as well as on NOAA weather radio. The period between March and May is generally considered peak tornado season.