D.C. 911 calls delayed, police radio hampered by power outage

Wait times for 911 calls spiked and police radios went quiet for several minutes on Tuesday afternoon due to a power outage at the city’s Unified Communications Center.

In a press release several hours after the outage, which started at 12:47 p.m., the Office of Unified Communications said that internal and external communications about police services were disrupted by the failure of both the ordinary power source and a back-up generator.

Callers to 911 were made to wait longer than usual, and the 311 call line that answers questions about city services went down entirely for 16 minutes. The press release did not state how long 911 callers had to wait, nor how long the problem lasted, and a spokeswoman did not know.

The press release said that the police department’s internal radio communications system was “severely impacted” for five minutes and did not return to normal for another 20 minutes.

On Monday, Office of Unified Communications staff noticed interruptions to the power supply at the building on the 2700 block of Martin Luther King Avenue SE that houses both the District’s communications office and Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The $116 million facility opened in 2006 and was hailed as a nationwide model for emergency communications. In fact, the city’s chief technology officer at the time, Suzanne J. Peck, said, “Our communications will never go down” because of the extensive back-up protection.

Since the new center opened, at least one other power outage has silenced emergency responders’ radios, though that one affected only internal communications.

Noting the problems on Monday, the agency looked to generator power as a back-up, and moved staff to an alternate location in an effort to make sure that 911 service would not be disrupted.

After 13 hours, the press release said, the generator failed. The press release described the resulting problems as “a catastrophic communications failure.”

The cause of the power outages is still unknown as the agency investigates the problem.

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Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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