Fairfax County’s 911 emergency center operated at just half capacity Monday as Verizon struggled to figure out why both its primary and backup power systems failed after Friday night’s storm and left much of Northern Virginia without 911 service through the weekend.
Callers with medical and safety emergencies caused by soaring temperatures, power outages and downed electric cables received either rapid busy signals, recorded messages saying the line was inoperative or dead silence, even after Verizon’s service was restored, local officials said.
The loss of power from both primary and backup systems, according to Harry J. Mitchell, Verizon’s director of public relations, damaged the company’s computer hardware and software and caused other mechanical problems in a chain reaction that has perplexed and alarmed state and local governments.
“It is understandable that something like this could happen, but shouldn’t there be some redundancy or backup to keep 911 up and running?” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “It’s not acceptable for the region’s 911 system to go down.”
Bulova and other elected officials are asking the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to set up an investigative task force.
Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, called the 911 outage “shocking” and “unacceptable.”
“I just hope no one lost their lives because the 911 system was down,” he said.
Mitchell said Verizon is restoring 911 service piece by piece.
“Once we complete our restoral efforts, we will investigate fully the causes of the problems and provide a root-cause analysis to the appropriate officials,” he said in an e-mail. “The powerful storm appears to have caused problems on multiple layers of facilities, from the commercial power failure to damage to our backup power supply, to downed and damaged lines. The combination of those factors led to issues with various aspects of the 911 system.”
Regular 911 service was restored Monday in Manassas, he said, and Verizon was again beginning to successfully provide the addresses of all 911 callers to Fairfax County. “We are testing that with Fairfax County now,” he said.
When the system is functioning properly, computers route all incoming calls to authorities in proper jurisdictions with callers’ addresses. If problems are experienced routing calls to one jurisdiction, the system is then supposed to route them to neighboring ones. But this function also failed over the weekend in most of Northern Virginia, except Alexandria and Loudoun County, which are serviced by different networks.
So far, no one has died because of the lack of 911 service, thanks in part to the extraordinary efforts that local governments made to alert residents by radio, television, Web sites, Facebook, Twitter and neighborhood e-mail lists, local officials said.
If residents couldn’t get through on 911, each government provided non-emergency numbers. If those didn't work, residents were advised to flag down a police officer or firefighter, or walk to the nearest fire station for help. Several dozen people in Fairfax stopped by fire stations, the majority for non-emergency matters, Dan Schmidt, a Fairfax fire department spokesman, said.