As Boy Sank in Pool, a Number of Calls to 911 Went Unanswered

By Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

A 14-year-old boy had passed out in a Prince William County swimming pool and was sinking to the bottom of the deep end. A nearby swimmer yelled for help, and a lifeguard dived in to save him. Two people grabbed phones and called 911. Then called again. And again.

The boy was still breathing when lifeguards pulled him out of the pool, but he appeared dazed and couldn't speak, witnesses said. Several minutes had passed, but there was still no answer at the county's public safety communications center.

"If 911 doesn't pick up, you're hung out to dry," said Cindy Watson, 41, who was at the Woodbridge pool with her children during the incident. An ambulance eventually came and the boy was fine, she said, but what if he had needed immediate medical help? "It could have been a tragedy," Watson said. "It was so close to a tragedy."

The county's 911 system experienced an emergency of its own, fire officials told county leaders last week. In the past two months, they said, the 911 system had four periods when service was disrupted and callers were unable to get through. The number has now grown to five with the July 11 pool incident, which fire officials said they were not aware of until it was brought to their attention.

Having so many disruptions in a 911 system is rare, and delays in emergency response can be fatal, officials say.

"I have never heard of that happening," said Roger Hixson, technical issues director at the National Emergency Number Association. "There are some systems that go on with no disruptions for years."

The disruptions in service, between May 28 and July 12, occurred after Verizon, which maintains the county's 911 equipment, upgraded the system May 28, Fire Chief Kevin J. McGee told the Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday. Each disruption sprang from a different technical issue, he said. McGee could not say how long each disruption lasted, saying the problems are still being investigated.

On May 28, a software glitch caused calls from people reporting a house fire to become "trapped in the equipment," McGee said. Neighbors, unable to get through, watched helplessly as flames engulfed the home. One caller gave up, jumped in his pickup and drove to the closest fire station, about a mile away.

Then on July 4, a Gainesville man needing an ambulance called 911 from his cellphone and his home phone before giving up and driving himself to a hospital in a neighboring county, McGee said. That same day, a number of callers trying to report illegal fireworks could not get through because a newly-installed server rebooted itself, logging off operators without their knowledge, he said. A supervisor noticed that no calls were coming in and contacted Verizon.

"It seems a little curious that you could log anyone off with no indication of that fact," Hixson said. "It doesn't seem like a very fail-safe approach."

Verizon promptly fixed both problems, McGee said.

During McGee's briefing to the board, he said the 911 system had not received calls from people reporting a car crash on the evening of July 11. But the county was not aware that there were problems earlier in the day, when the incident at the pool occurred, until contacted by The Washington Post, said John Maddox, technical programs manager for the Prince William County Office of Public Safety Communications. A subsequent review of call records reflected the missed calls.

"A lot of times, we don't realize that anything happened until someone comes forward and says, 'I had a problem,' " Maddox said. "We have no way to proactively detect these things."

Maddox said the 911 problems in the afternoon and evening were separate instances, although both were connected to work being done on the server. That problem was fixed within a week, he said.

Peter Lucht, a Verizon spokesman, said the disturbances in Prince William "stemmed from an unusual combination of factors" and were "not something that we usually see." The company has worked closely with the county "to stabilize the system and ensure that [problems] won't be repeated," he said.

The county purchased its 911 system from Verizon in 2002, and it was installed in 2003, and fire officials said there were no problems until the May 28 upgrade. There have been no problems since July 12, they said.

County supervisors said they will look more closely at the yearly maintenance contract with Verizon, which will be up for renewal in May.

"When these kinds of matters come up, there is a lot more scrutiny -- a lot more eyes, if you will -- looking at that relationship," said Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge). "I can guarantee that this contractual relationship is under the microscope and will continue to be."

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