Verizon 911 failures are part of wider neglect, Virginia says

Verizon failures at two critical offices that knocked out 911 emergency service in Northern Virginia in June are part of a broader pattern of neglect statewide that will take time and effort to correct, Virginia regulators said Thursday.

Verizon Communications has replaced or repaired equipment at its Arlington County and Fairfax sites, which were at the heart of the outages that followed the June 29 derecho storm.

However, a company review of its 16 critical offices for 911 throughout Virginia found hundreds of abnormalities, including obsolete and discontinued equipment, an office where the brick veneer wall was falling onto an adjacent property and a backup battery that had not been tested since 2009, the report said.

“Verizon has allowed equipment and facilities at many of its offices to deteriorate,” the report said, adding that “the risk of further 911 or other customer service outages cannot be mitigated without correcting the problems at all Verizon offices in Virginia.”

“There is not a simple or quick solution to the lack of attention to maintenance,” the report said.

Report issued Jan. 17 on 911 emergency call service outages and problems.

Verizon already has fixed some of the problems identified by the Virginia State Corporation Commission and continues to work on others, said Kyle Malady, a Verizon senior vice president for global network operations and engineering.

“I find it pretty shocking that the system had been allowed to deteriorate to such a degree, and it is completely unacceptable,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The county pays $3 million a year for Verizon 911 service. “It’s an investment we make in order to provide public safety, and it’s important that we know we are getting the coverage we are paying for,” she said.

The company told Virginia regulators that it plans to test all of its critical 911 offices in the state under blackout conditions by the end of this year to ensure that the system will work in a power outage. It also plans to redesign its lines that remotely monitor service problems to be sure there are additional paths to relay information to main Verizon offices.

Last month, The Washington Post published an analysis showing that Verizon’s 911 service has had systemic failures over the past two years, with at least 11 outages since July 2010 in Virginia and Maryland that blocked calls or deprived authorities of location data and call-back numbers.

The Virginia report says the 911 outages were a direct result of Verizon’s failures to maintain equipment, a conclusion that tracks closely to findings released last week by the Federal Communications Commission.

Verizon lines handle every 911 call made in Washington’s suburbs. No matter which telephone company is used to call 911, Verizon routes the call to the closest dispatch center.

For hours after the derecho, no 911 calls could get through to emergency centers in Fairfax and Prince William counties and in Manassas and Manassas Park after backup generators failed to start and repair crews missed some problems and failed to recognize the severity of others. Restricted 911 service continued for days at 25 emergency call centers in Virginia because of equipment failures and repair problems after the derecho, state regulators found.

The Virginia report included a range of recommendations that the state commission could adopt, including requiring quarterly reports from Verizon about progress on fixing problems as well as timetables for larger system-wide repairs.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Joe Stephens joined The Washington Post in 1999 and specializes in in-depth enterprise reporting.
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