911 Failures Magnify a Dangerous Thunderstorm

Jul 30, 2012

2.3 million Northern Virginia residents lost emergency 911 service for up to four days after the June 29th thunderstorm. Worse, Verizon, which administers Northern Virginia’s 911 calls, did not alert the 911 call center about the breakdown.

Fairfax officials, dealing with a surge of calls as a result of the storm, shut down the storm response center because they believed all its calls had been resolved. In fact, the calls could not get through. By 7:30 a.m. on June 30th, 911 calls had stopped coming in and police and fire officials could not call out on their emergency lines. But it wasn’t until 9:30 a.m. that Verizon notified officials of the problem with 911.

Residents were told to use non-emergency numbers. But Verizon and FiOS land lines and wireless networks were also not working. So people were unable to call anyone. Residents were then told to flag down police.

Why not use telepathy or smoke signals?

This is not the first time. In 2010 and 2011, in Maryland, 911 service failed on four occasions in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Verizon also failed to notify the emergency call centers all four times. In the worst one, some 10,000 calls to 911 failed to go through.

And what have we learned from all these 911 outages? That leaving a necessary public service in the hands of a private, profit-making company spells disaster, no matter what the emergency.