With 27,000 households without power, 19 roads still blocked, land line phone service erratic and calls to 911 not always getting through, Jack Brown, director of Arlington County’s Office of Emergency Management, has an audacious idea: Consider canceling the Fourth of July.
“I’m questioning having a special event during an emergency,” he said Monday after a weekend of extreme heat, lack of power and most critically, the failure of the emergency 911 call system. “Police are pre-deployed to two or three venues for traffic [during the holiday]. We had to evacuate the Iwo Jima Memorial a couple of times due to pending storms. Our power supply is not up and running at full strength and our emergency communications are not where I’d like.
“I’m really, really concerned about the vulnerability of our community, especially Arlington, but really the whole National Capital region.”
Verizon handles the 911 call system for northern Virginia and its facility in Arlington had a “power issue” that caused both technical and mechanical problems after the storm passed Friday night. The result was that Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax City, Manassas and Manassas City lost reliable 911 access, both incoming and outgoing calls.
People who called 911 Saturday and Sunday often didn’t get through. Officials responded by asking residents to call non-emergency numbers, reach emergency personnel by Twitter or Facebook or Web site contact, or go to the nearest fire station or government-operating cooling centers where extra personnel were on hand to handle problems.
While local governments and Verizon struggle to get 911 up to acceptable levels, managers are worried about the upcoming holiday.
“We’re very aware of the week that it is and we’ll be appropriately staffed” in Fairfax County, said spokeswoman Mernie Fitzgerald. “The Fourth isn’t just planned by government, it’s planned by communities so I don’t see how we could cancel it.”
In Arlington, Brown said the county is going to conduct a thorough investigation of what happened to the 911 system and how to prevent it from happening again in the future, a vow that was also expressed by Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“For an unacceptable period of time, our regional 911 emergency communication was down or seriously compromised,” she wrote in a newsletter to residents. “You can be sure that this will be the focus of a serious discussion among elected leaders throughout the Region and the Commonwealth.”