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Losing 911

DPSC director discusses power-outage response.

— When hurricane-force winds slammed into the local area two weeks ago, they felled trees and power lines and knocked out electricity to more than 1 million residents in Northern Virginia. Verizon supplied phone service to many of them, including Fairfax County’s Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC).

As a result, many area residents were plunged into darkness and lost air conditioning in the midst of a blistering heat wave. And residents with emergencies were unable to reach the 911 call center by phone.

Called a “Derecho” because of its straight-line winds, the storm occurred Friday, June 29, around 10:30 p.m. Verizon wasn’t the only power company knocked out of service that night but, because it serves Fairfax County’s 911 call center, its loss here was felt.

“The storm struck the county with great ferocity,” said DPSC Director Steve Souder. “In its three-hour duration, DPSC workloads increased more than 400 percent. However, after the storm passed, on June 30 at 6 a.m., suddenly the 911 lines ceased to ring because of the failure in the Verizon 911 service.”

It wasn’t until the afternoon of Tuesday, July 3, that 911 service was restored fully. And in the interim, there was only sporadic service throughout the county. The outage also affected 911 service in Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington, Alexandria and Stafford counties.

When the 911 lines went down, said Souder, the normal backup phone numbers — the non-emergency lines — went out, too, “which is rare to happen. So we had to find an alternative, 10-digit number for people to use.”

But until that happened, he said, “Initially, we told people to flag down a police officer or firefighter if they had emergencies. The spirit of Fairfax County residents and their ability to react and improvise was amazing. They picked the ball up and did what they needed to do. As far as we know, there were no emergencies that went unreported by some means.”

And when an alternative, emergency number was established, DPSC posted it on the county’s Twitter account and on Facebook and alerted TV, radio and other media outlets. However, said Souder, “Because of the electrical outage, many cell sites lost power and went to generators — which eventually failed, too. So people had multiple challenges.”

But he said Fairfax County’s emergency personnel and DPSC employees are “pretty resilient, too; we’re good at coping. The radio system used to communicate with public safety field personnel — fire and police — was still working. So if people flagged down an officer for help, that officer would radio in to us and we’d dispatch the appropriate units.”

Furthermore, said Souder, “Our Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system within our building continued to operate fine. And the officers had mobile CAD computers through which we could continue to communicate with them.”

Nonetheless, he said, “911 is the most-recognized number in America — and in the National Capital Region with 7 million people, we can’t have this happen in a major emergency. The [Metropolitan Washington] Council of Governments will be undertaking an inquiry to identify what Verizon can do in the future so there’s no possibility of this happening again.”