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Federal lawmakers call for stemming failures of 911 services

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Repeated failures in 911 telephone service in the Washington region demonstrate the need for stronger federal oversight of emergency systems nationwide, some federal lawmakers said this week, perhaps requiring new regulation from the Federal Communications Commission.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) and two other House Democrats said the FCC needs to ensure that improvements are made in the commercial services that route calls to government-run answering centers in light of new reports of 911 outages. Verizon Communications, which routes 911 calls in 12 states and much of the Washington area, in particular, needs to fix flaws in its system, Connolly said.

“They have had their opportunity to do this voluntarily, and they have shirked that opportunity at every turn,” Connolly said of Verizon. “To protect the public, we very clearly need the FCC.

“This is a life-and-death situation. If someone has a heart attack, 911 has got to work,” he said.

Connolly cited a Washington Post analysis published Sunday that showed that the Washington region’s 911 emergency network has suffered at least 11 outages since July 2010, at times leaving residents who rushed to report life-threatening injuries instead listening to busy signals. 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 suburbs. Verizon routes 911 calls to 1,800 government-run answering centers, making it one of the largest such carriers in the nation.

Verizon spokesman Harry J. Mitchell said Tuesday that the company has made many improvements in recent months and plans more. Verizon is working closely with the FCC and state regulators to examine the cause of past outages and determine what can be done to prevent future ones, he said.

“Verizon understands the critical function of 911 service and the critical role we play in successfully delivering calls to 911 from people in distress,” Mitchell said. “We take this role seriously, and when an issue arises, we act quickly to investigate, correct and apply any lessons learned across our system.”

Mitchell said Verizon’s system performed well during Hurricane Sandy, which he described as a field test of improvements the company has made to its systems.

Rep. Laura Richardson (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on a House panel on emergency preparedness, said she has been worried about the 911 system’s reliability since an outage swept Northern Virginia during June’s derecho storm.

“It is time for the Federal Communications Commission investigators to determine once and for all what the causes for these failures are, work to correct them, and work expeditiously with appropriate state and local emergency centers to upgrade and make the 911 systems more resilient,” Richardson said in a statement.

Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said that although he believed that Verizon had been trying to address its problems, recent events provide a chance for improvements. “Congress needs to take this opportunity to strengthen our 911 systems across the country,” Moran said.

Emergency 911 services are operated and overseen primarily at the local and state level. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday that the commission will soon release the findings of an inquiry related to the June outage and identify changes that might be needed in federal regulation and oversight. He called the June 911 failure “unacceptable.”

Based on The Post’s analysis and the June outage, Connolly said he is worried that residents still might not have adequate protection.

“I’m not convinced it’s fixed,” Connolly said. “The public has to know when they call 911 that it’s reliable and it works. . . . There is a different performance standard when it comes to anything having to do with emergency operations. It’s a much higher standard.

“Verizon really let the region down. And I frankly don’t think their explanations have been satisfactory.”

After the June outage, Connolly co-signed a letter to the FCC, along with Moran and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), urging the commission to enact regulations to require phone companies to provide at least eight hours of backup power for all cellphone towers. The regulations, first proposed in 2007, were dropped because of technical problems.

In the letter, Connolly wrote: “It is deeply troubling, particularly in light of the significant efforts made to improve response capabilities after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that the entire national capital region’s emergency 911 system could have been so easily disrupted.”

On Monday, Connolly said the FCC needs to “dust off” the regulations and strengthen enforcement. “They go a long way toward reassuring the public and addressing the issue,” he said.

In the past, Verizon’s explanations of the problems have been “a bit of a whitewash.” He said new reports about multiple outages over years “confirms the growing concern about Verizon’s capacity to deliver on its promises to the region. This is a matter of accountability.”

“When we needed [911 service] in the middle of a major disaster, we had catastrophic failure,” he said. “The whole point of having 911 is that, in an emergency, it works. We can’t just rely on self-compliance.”

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