Lessons Learned from Derecho 911 Problems

Arlington County is using the 911 problems following the June 29 derecho as a learning opportunity.

In the days following the storm, which left 1 million customers without power in Virginia, Arlington and Fairfax counties experienced numerous problems with its 911 service, which made 911 unreachable for many emergency callers; some callers got a busy signal after calling 911, others heard nothing.

The problems were traced back to Verizon’s local communications backbone. In a report released last week, Verizon said the 911 problems started as a result of power outages.

Verizon’s central phone facility in Arlington lost power after the storm. It operated for a few hours on battery power, but a generator at the location failed to start (due to fuel line problems) and the facility lost power at 5:00 a.m. on June 30, after the batteries drained. Although Dominion restored power to the facility at 12:45 p.m., it took time for Verizon to recover its “telemetry” systems, which allow it to see and diagnose problems in its phone network, which had been been damaged by falling trees pulling down phone lines.

In Arlington, 911 service was spotty for days, but was deemed restored and stable by July 4.

In its report, Verizon said it has learned lessons from its 911 failure and will be improving its generator maintenance and redesigning some of its network systems to improve redundancy and reliability. Arlington County says it, too, has learned lessons from the experience.

Jack Brown, Arlington’s director of emergency management, said he’s hopeful that a 911 failure will never happen again. Should it happen, however, he said the county will have a more defined playbook of how to handle the situation.

During the days after the storm, Arlington advised those with emergencies to call the county’s non-emergency line at 703-558-2222. If all else failed, the county also staffed its fire stations so that residents could walk in and report an emergency. A “couple of people” did end up resorting to walking to fire stations, according to Brown.

Through the county’s efforts and somef luck, Brown said no one in Arlington was seriously harmed as a result of the 911 failure.

“We are very lucky that we didn’t have any life-threatening emergencies that couldn’t get through during that time,” said Brown. “We were very vulnerable during that period.”

In Virginia, a state panel is currently investigating the 911 failures, Brown said. Northern Virginia congressmen also called for the FCC to investigate the problems.

Flickr pool photo by ddimick