Homeland Security and Public Safety

When 911 Fails: What Safeguards Are In Place?

An investigation into the situation that left 2.3 million residents in northern Virginia without telephone access to 911 for up to four days.

People know what to do when they get into a car accident: Call 911. They know what to do when the traffic signals go out: Call 911. But what do you do when 911 goes out?

The question was more than merely academic for some 2.3 million residents in northern Virginia who lost telephone access to emergency services for up to four days in June in the wake of a quick and violent thunderstorm known as a derecho.

Congress moved as swiftly as the derecho itself to express its displeasure with the 911 outage. In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, U.S. Reps. Jim Moran, Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf wrote: “In the event of an emergency situation, whether it be a natural disaster or man-made threat, the public needs confidence that they can get through to 911 operators. This storm exposed a weakness in our response system, and now that we know it exists, we must fix it.”

To fix it, you first have to understand it. With multiple investigations under way in Washington, Emergency Management asked Fairfax County Director of Public Safety Communications Steve Souder to describe the events surrounding the 911 blackout.

It was the evening of June 29 ...

Initial surge

While there had been bad weather looming on the radar, no one saw anything like the derecho coming. “The severity, the speed and the wind velocity that struck was quite unpredicted,” Souder said.

911 centers throughout the region were immediately swamped with calls of downed wires and trees, felled poles, roof damage — all the typical carnage in the aftermath of intense wind and rain, but coming at an extraordinary pace.

During the three hours of the storm, 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., emergency call traffic in Fairfax County reached 415 percent above a normally busy Friday evening. Fire crews went out on rescue calls. Police took over manual traffic control at intersections where power outages had knocked out the signals.

There were early, though by no means catastrophic, blips in 911. When the Arlington emergency system lost power briefly, systems including 911 rolled to the uninterruptible power supply and then onto generators, as designed. Operationally, the power never went out. The generators ran for 10 hours until power was restored.

Emergency managers braced for the morning, when homeowners would wake up and realize the full extent of the damage to their properties. By 7 a.m., there would surely be a fresh wave of 911 calls.

Except there wasn’t.

The new shift came on at 7 a.m. “And virtually at the same time we noticed that we were not getting any 911 calls — a most unusual thing — and we had not been notified by Verizon that there was any problem,” Souder said. The emergency lines were out; the nonemergency lines were gone. The administrative and business lines: all dead.

“I got an email in the morning saying there were major problems, no 911 service at all, contact the department of public safety communications ASAP,” Souder said. “I tried to contact them by my personal cellphone, but I found that even that was out.”

He headed into work, where things were just as bad as he’d imagined. There were no telecommunications, period. “Obviously we have an alternative center that we would normally go to, but in this case it also was without any 911 service. This thing was as total as anyone knows of in the 44 years that 911 has been around.”

911 went out at 6:30 a.m., and Fairfax managers didn’t hear from Verizon until three hours later. Why the lag? It’s far from clear. “Verizon has said their delay in notifying Fairfax County and other jurisdictions was because of technical problems and internal and external communications issues,” Souder said.

In fact, the communications rift was even greater, Souder said. Verizon knew it had major problems on its hands well before 911 systems went down, but didn’t reach out to local officials for nine hours. “I have described that as akin to the captain of the Titanic not telling his passengers the ship had struck an iceberg until the bow of the boat was about to hit the bottom of the ocean,” Souder said.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.