911 emergency system restored after storm, but questions linger

Northern Virginia’s 911 system has been fully restored after a series of outages and glitches caused by the weekend’s major storm, a Verizon spokesman said Tuesday afternoon.

But even as the service came back online, area officials raised new questions about how the carrier handled the outage. The director of Fairfax County’s emergency communications center said it took Verizon roughly three hours to officially notify the county that 911 was down after the emergency line went out at 6:30 a.m. Saturday.

Fairfax officials knew there was a problem then, but its full scope did not become apparent until Verizon phoned the county about 9:30 a.m, said Steve Souder, head of Fairfax’s Department of Public Safety Communications.

“We much prefer to be notified much quicker,” Souder said.

Verizon officials disputed Fairfax County’s timetable, saying they initiated contact with the emergency communications center at 5:50 a.m. to let them know the carrier had received alarms on some of its equipment.

“ We remained in communication with the center through the morning, both by phone and email,” Harry J. Mitchell, a Verizon director of public relations, wrote in an email.

The 911 problems in Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties and Manassas and other areas angered local officials and forced residents to call nonemergency lines and even travel to fire stations by foot to get help.

The storm knocked out 911 in a handful of areas beginning Friday night. Service began being restored Saturday afternoon, but problems persisted through Tuesday. Fairfax’s emergency operation center was at half-capacity Monday, and some emergency calls were not being routed to the proper jurisdictions. The problems were only resolved about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Souder said.

Souder rated Verizon’s performance during the storm as “not very high” and said the carrier needs to install “more redundancy and more reliable redundancy” in its systems to ensure that 911 will not go out during storms.

“911 is the most commonly known number in America,” Souder said. “It’s absolutely imperative that the confidence in 911 not be put in doubt. Unfortunately, the phone providers did put it in doubt with this outage.”

He said emergency call volume increased more than 400 percent during Friday night’s storm.

Verizon officials said the storm caused widespread damage to its network.

“The 911 network is designed so there is really no one point of failure,” Mitchell said. “This was a perfect storm. . . . It damaged a number of our facilities inside and out. That led to the 911 issue this weekend. We’re going to do a full analysis of what happened . . . and take any action we need to take.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Verizon said that nearly all of its customers again had cellphone service but that there were lingering problems with TV, landline and Internet service in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Mitchell said there was no timetable for when those problems might be resolved.

Verizon received three to four times its normal number of repair calls in recent days and crews were working extended shifts, Mitchell added.

Nevertheless, he said, there was still a significant amount of cleanup work to do: Verizon has more than 130 downed utility poles and more than 760 downed utility lines. Verizon wasn’t the only carrier to experience problems: AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile said Monday that they were also working to repair storm damage to their networks.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and other local leaders say they want a task force formed to investigate the 911 problems, calling it unacceptable for the system to go out during a major emergency.

No one has died because of the 911 issues, local officials said, but it caused at least one close call. A 911 caller could not immediately get through in Prince William County over the weekend, delaying paramedics’ response to a person with cardiac issues. The person survived.

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