Andrew Duke, a deputy fire chief, worked many of the outage hours, relying on radios to communicate. “I never thought I would come to work and nothing worked.”
At Duke’s fire station in Merrifield, a man drove in to report a utility pole fire, but he was unsure of the street’s name.
“We told him to lead us there,” Duke said, “but drive calm and normal, like nothing is on fire and there weren’t firetrucks behind him.”
Verizon says it has corrected some of the problems brought to light by the June storm, including replacing batteries, repairing generators and clarifying procedures for technicians.
Company officials are trying to ensure that lines meant to be redundant are truly independent of those they back up within Verizon’s network.
Verizon’s regional staff has met with the area’s 911 directors to discuss specific troubles each center faced. The company plans to run blackout simulations and to redesign the system that monitors alarms for the region’s 911 centers to improve its power supply and add auxiliary sites.
The company also pledged to do a better job of staying in touch with 911 centers during outages.
Local government officials said they appreciate those changes but remain skeptical.
Nearly two years ago, Verizon executives told Maryland regulators that they aimed to notify 911 centers within 15 minutes if a 911 line went out, case files show.
“We’ve heard loud and clear” that communication with 911 centers “is extremely important,” Davis told regulators in March 2011. Verizon has “devoted a considerable amount of effort and energy and imagination to how we deliver on that.”
Yet in June, notices about Virginia outages were sent nearly two hours after batteries had drained.
Fairfax County said in an FCC filing, “The string of 9-1-1 failures over the past several years shows that Verizon cannot be relied upon to diagnose and cure its own problems unassisted.”
Unlike with electric utilities, there are nopublicly available benchmarks for comparing the reliability of 911 service providers.
The FCC requires companies to report large outages that hit specific thresholds, including those lasting at least 30 minutes. The causes and remedies also have to be spelled out. But the FCC keeps those filings confidential, partly because of security concerns but also to protect companies’ competitive business information.
The Northern Virginia 911 outages have renewed calls for that information to be shared with state regulators.
Helen Mickiewicz, assistant general counsel at the California Public Utilities Commission, said sharing FCC reports would enhance public safety. “Some service providers really do view themselves as good citizens and follow best practices,” she said, “and others couldn’t care less.”
Verizon has told the FCC that it might be open to sharing reports with states but that the reports should not be used for “measuring service quality or consumer protection.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the federal inquiry into June’s outage is critically important. “You might make this call once, but the old saying goes: It’s the most important call you can ever make.”