Failures have occurred across the region,
from the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia horse country. Some outages blocked all calls in a particular area; others restricted the number of calls or deprived authorities of location data and call-back numbers.
The troubles occurred in a system operated by Verizon, whose lines handle every 911 call made in Washington’s immediate suburbs. Verizon routes 911 calls to 1,800 government-run call centers in 12 states, making it one of the largest such carriers in the nation.
The 911 networks are specifically designed to be fail-safe and to continue operating when other critical infrastructure, such as power lines, are knocked out.
But as failures quietly mounted, officials in the Washington area and elsewhere began asking whether the incidents were symptoms of deeper flaws permeating the nation’s emergency-response system, perhaps requiring federal action.
“At the time you’re in most dire need of assistance, it would be nice if someone could hear your call for help,” said Carol Henn of Rockville, whose husband was killed by lightning at a picnic in 2010. Calls to 911 seeking help for Carl Henn met with busy signals. It is unclear why the calls did not go through, but 911 troubles that day are being reviewed by Maryland regulators.
Experts said the outages are especially troubling because they hobbled some of the most advanced and best funded emergency call centers in the nation, such as those in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
No single factor
The outages were caused by various problems and could not be traced to a single factor, The Post’s review found. The problems included struggles to maintain equipment, technical glitches and automatic alarms going unheeded.
Verizon officials said they took all of the problems seriously, while emphasizing that they do not consider all of the failures equally significant.
“If we step back, our overall reliability is very strong,” said Maureen Davis, Verizon’s vice president of network operations for the Mid-Atlantic region. “Having said that, we care about each one of these incidents.”
The Washington area outages have national implications, experts said.
“Everyone is waiting to understand exactly what happened” with the derecho, said Steve Marzolf, an information technology official for Virginia and an emergency call center specialist. “The network in Northern Virginia . . . is pretty much the architecture used nationally.”
Verizon provides the backbone of the region’s emergency service system. No matter what telephone company a person uses to call 911 in the Washington suburbs, the call passes through Verizon’s system, which operates like a high-tech traffic cop and directs requests for help to the closest dispatch center.