Verizon could join Pepco in utility Hall of Shame

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 28, 2012

Move over, Pepco. Verizon has applied to join you in the Greater Washington Utilities Hall of Shame.

The telecommunications giant is knocking on the door after a shortage of working backup generators helped trigger a collapse in Northern Virginia of the single most vital public service Verizon provides: routing 911 emergency calls to fire, police and emergency medical personnel. The breakdown occurred after the June 29 derecho.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

It’s a tad early for the formal induction ceremony. We need to hear the results of inquiries underway by federal and state regulators and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Still, Verizon is already displaying many of the same irritating habits that led the Pepco electric utility to be labeled in one survey as the nation’s most hated company.

● Blame a severe weather event that was supposedly both unprecedented and impossible to anticipate? Check.

●Do a lousy job of communicating with the public during the storm? Check.

●Drag your feet in explaining what happened? Check.

●Suffer repeated problems over time in different jurisdictions? Check.

Moreover, despite its insistence to the contrary, Verizon’s breakdown in the storm appears to have violated a formal “best practice” of the Federal Communications Commission, which calls for sufficient backup power to ensure critical communications services.

It also might have run afoul of a Virginia State Corporation Commission rule requiring the phone company to maintain and operate facilities to “minimize interruptions” to 911 service.

Those official guidelines are bound to get the attention of regulators as they consider pressing for new rules or laws and imposing fines or other penalties as part of their efforts to prevent a repeat of the fiasco.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this failure. It lasted days and affected more than 2 million people.

Verizon pledges to provide reliable 911 service under contracts with local governments that cost Northern Virginia taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

More importantly, it has a broader, social responsibility to do whatever it takes to keep 911 working — especially in dangerous events such as storms.

Nine-one-one is the most recognizable phone number in America. In the realm of human activity, it’s one of a very few phenomena whose proper functioning every day is, literally, a matter of life and death.

It went down in Fairfax and Prince William counties, among other places, on the morning of June 30.

The previous night’s storm had shut down commercial power and emergency batteries were exhausted after a few hours at key Verizon control offices in Arlington County and Fairfax.

Each office had a pair of backup generators, each roughly the size of a walk-in closet. One of the generators failed at each site, and the remaining units weren’t strong enough to keep 911 up.

“At some point, they couldn’t power everything,” Anthony Lewis, Verizon’s vice president for government affairs for the mid-Atlantic region, said in an interview Thursday.

Lewis seemed to go further in acknowledging Verizon’s failings than the company had done before. For instance, he conceded that it did an inadequate job at the start of explaining to local officials what was happening.

However, Lewis also asserted that Verizon had prepared as well as could be expected. He put primary responsibility on the derecho’s ferocity.

“It was an amazing storm. We have never seen this type of emergency before,” Lewis said. “Now we understand that this can happen, and now we plan for that. This time, we absolutely failed, and I own up to that.”

The mea culpa is gratifying, but I’ve got two problems with the defense.

First, Verizon should be able to maintain 911 service even in such emergencies as a major terrorist attack or a hurricane. Yet it couldn’t handle a strong, unexpected thunderstorm.

Also, although Lewis said Verizon “absolutely” fulfilled all of the FCC’s recommendations for quality service, I think it fell short.

On the FCC’s Web site, I found best practice 8-7-5204, which is given “critical” priority. It says service providers “should ensure availability of emergency/backup power (e.g., batteries, generators, fuel cells) to maintain critical communications services during times of commercial power failures, including natural and manmade occurrences.”

When I asked Verizon about it Friday, the company argued that it had satisfied the best practice just by having backup generators in place. The problem, a spokeswoman said, was “mechanical failure in the starting of particular backup generators.”

Think about that. Verizon’s position is that its responsibility to the public was fulfilled just because backup generators were there.

The company believes somehow that it’s a separate matter that the machines wouldn’t start.

We mustn’t let Verizon wriggle away from its obligations.

The FCC and the public want the company to guarantee 911 service when the need is highest.

Unless Verizon proves it can do so, it’s on a path to the same notoriety as Pepco.

I’m taking a one-week break. The column returns Aug. 9. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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