It’s been almost two months since a power outage from a strong storm known as a Derecho shut down Northern Virginia 9-1-1 emergency phone lines, and area residents are still wondering how and why it happened.
However, they’re going to have to wait at least another month–and possibly until the end of the year to find out.
William Irby, the Communications Division Director for Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC), says the government task force investigating the 9-1-1 outage on June 30, has until September 14 to come up with an interim report. A final report, he says, is due by December 31st.
Verizon provides the phone lines that tie into local 9-1-1 centers. But because the storm knocked out power to so many of its facilities, and because backup generators also failed; 2.3 million area residents were unable to make emergency calls–some, for as many as four days.
According to Verizon spokesman, Harry J. Mitchell, the company is “working to determine why that happened given that the generators were tested successfully just days before the event, and they have been tested successfully several times since the event.”
The task force doing the investigation is made up of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), the State Corporations Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Irby explained that all have a stake in finding out what happened, and making sure it doesn’t happen again.
The MWCOG, he explained, represents all the 9-1-1 centers affected; Arlington County, Fairfax County, Alexandria, Loudon County, Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park, and Stafford. But it wasn’t that the 9-1-1 centers themselves were shut down. It was just Verizon’s phone lines into the 9-1-1 centers that were disabled.
Irby explained that the SCC is in charge of regulating 9-1-1 phone service delivered over landlines, and the FCC oversees wireless cellular 9-1-1 calls.
However, he says, the FCC isn’t only involved because they regulate wireless phones. They’re also concerned about homeland security issues raised by such a massive emergency communications failure in suburbs surrounding the nation’s Capitol.
On the plus side, 9-1-1 centers did find some ways to work around the problem. For example, Arlington County reached out to the public via Arlington Alert, Facebook, and Twitter. They also let people know they could notify fire stations about emergencies if they had difficulty when dialing 9-1-1, and staffing was increased at fire stations.
Of course, since many of the three million people without power in the DC area weren’t able to connect to the internet; they wouldn’t have been able to receive social media notifications on their computers.
Getting notified via the mobile web was also out for many people, because cell towers were damaged by the near-hurricane force winds. In addition, even if Verizon’s phone lines into emergency response centers hadn’t failed; people who relied on cell phones only would still have still been unable to call.
Hitting the road in search of someplace with power and air conditioning was also problematic, as many gas stations were shut down because they didn’t have power for the pumps. And, if you didn’t have cash on hand, you were really out of luck, because the power failure also shut down ATM’s in many locations.
All in all; it was a “perfect storm” of technology failures that underscore the need for basic emergency preparedness.
Here are some links to information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that you may find helpful: