Pr. William 911 Failures Cited

By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Prince William County residents were without reliable 911 emergency service during four periods in the past two months, Fire Chief Kevin J. McGee told county leaders yesterday.

During those times, people tried to reach 911 and could not get through, McGee said. In May, residents watched fire engulf a neighbor's home. One morning, 16 calls went unanswered. On another day, a man needing an ambulance drove himself to a hospital in a neighboring county after trying to call for help from a home telephone and on his cellphone, McGee said.

The disruptions, between May 28 and July 12, occurred after Verizon upgraded the 911 system in late May, McGee told the Board of County Supervisors. Verizon's network receives the 911 calls before they are relayed to the county's public safety communications center, which then dispatches emergency personnel.

"We consider the situation an emergency, and we expect Verizon to consider it an emergency as well," McGee said.

McGee said one disruption was longer than five minutes, but he did not say how long the others lasted, saying the investigation is ongoing. He said Verizon has worked with the county on the glitches. Verizon officials said the problems have been fixed.

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said that Verizon should be held accountable and that the board will review the telecommunications company's contract, which expires later this year.

"We were surprised in this day and age that something like that could happen," Caddigan said after the fire chief briefed the board.

The first gap in service occurred May 28, when 911 calls to report a house fire in the 4500 block of Kingston Road in Dale City went unanswered, McGee said.

Jennifer Meyer, who lives across the street, said: "In the time that I watched the fire spread while listening to the phone ring, it went from a small fire to a fire that was throughout the entire top story of the house. If the 911 call had been answered promptly, the family that was living there might still be living there and their house might be reparable, instead of gutted." No one was injured in the fire.

An investigation by the fire department and Verizon found that "software issues" left the calls "trapped in the equipment," causing 911 service to be out for five minutes and 20 seconds.

To prevent future glitches, Verizon has agreed to submit its plans to the county in writing before starting work and have qualified technicians on hand to fix all types of equipment, McGee said.

The 911 service failed three more times in the next 15 days, McGee said. On July 4, supervisors at the communications center discovered the problem and reported it to Verizon, which reestablished service.

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