Maryland’s Office of People’s Counsel, which represents consumer interests, has proposed fining the company at least $1 million for 911 outages, a penalty that Verizon’s Lewis said was not needed. “We are the good guys here,” Lewis said. “We jump all over these issues. . . . There is no corporate incentive to us not to fix these.”
To investigate the 911 failures, The Post interviewed dozens of experts and reviewed company filings, along with e-mails, letters and other documents submitted to local, state and federal officials. The Post obtained records through public information requests. Officials declined to release others, citing corporate privacy.
The records and interviews indicate that in a number of incidents, repair teams struggled to maintain failing equipment, working under the supervision of managers who reacted slowly because they misunderstood the scope of problems. Backup systems did not kick in. At least one alarm was out of service for a week and was discovered only after a 911 line failed.
Vital equipment that remotely monitors 911 problems in several states shut down during a blackout because it had less than an hour’s worth of backup battery power.
Time and again, Verizon did not discover outages until notified by government officials.
Some experts go so far as to suggest that flaws in 911 systems in the Washington area and elsewhere could undermine the multibillion-dollar investment that U.S. taxpayers have made in homeland security programs since Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s all fine and well to say, ‘If you see something, say something.’ But if you can’t say it to 911, the system breaks down,” homeland security consultant Michael Hopmeier said.
Success for 911 service is measured in seconds, not minutes or hours. Carl Henn’s friends and family know all too well the anguish of hearing a busy signal when a loved one is in need.
In July 2010, a storm came on fast over King Farm Park in upper Montgomery County, where friends had gathered to honor Henn, a well-known environmentalist, for helping to create a community garden.
Other picnickers made it to their cars. Henn did not, and when the rain lifted minutes later, John Burke of Rockville found him on the ground, felled by lightning.
“I tried to call 911,” Burke said, but his wireless call didn’t go through. The crowd tried different phones, different carriers, but got the same busy signals in dozens of attempts, Burke and others said. The group gave up, flagged a passing sport-utility vehicle and rushed Henn, 48, to a hospital. He died two days later.