Montgomery's 911 troubles appear widespread
At least three Maryland counties report glitch; problem could be nationwide
Residents in Montgomery and at least two other Maryland counties have been unable to connect with 911 operators at times in the past several months due to a glitch with Verizon, the utility that provides service to emergency dispatch centers.
Thousands of 911 calls have gone unanswered, said Jamie Barnett, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's public safety and homeland security bureau. The FCC thinks the problem might be occurring nationwide, he said.
In the Maryland cases, residents who dialed 911 have heard busy signals or have been rerouted to other jurisdictions. Officials in Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties have reported the problem.
On Thursday, Verizon officials acknowledged the failure and said they were taking steps to improve their infrastructure and communication with local jurisdictions. Verizon officials made the comments during a meeting of the state's Emergency Number Systems Board, which is the funding agent of the state's 911 centers.
Maryland residents said that, in some cases, it took a half-hour to reach emergency dispatchers. In Montgomery County, a family's home burned to the ground Jan. 26 while they found themselves unable to get through to 911. Officials say the family and neighbors dialed 911 for about a half-hour.
Verizon officials blame heavy call volume for the problem Jan. 26, when about a foot of snow fell on the county. They say callers stranded on roads or reporting downed power lines overburdened the call center's capacity.
When a trunk line fails from hardware malfunction due to a large number of calls, as occurred Jan. 26, it is designed to shut down automatically in order to prevent the calls from becoming stranded, Verizon officials told the board. Calls are then rerouted to other working trunk lines in the same group. A trunk line is a telephone line designed to handle several calls at once and route them to an available dispatcher.
However, when all the trunk lines are overloaded with 911 calls, there is no place in the group of trunk lines to reroute the calls, and callers hear busy signals.
"They had their heads down trying to fix the problem," said Andrew Whitt, Verizon's director of national switching, explaining why the company's workers did not alert 911 centers to the situation.
Verizon officials said they are working on implementing a new system that would allow only one trunk line to shut down automatically while the rest continued operating until technicians could repair the problem. They also said they will make sure personnel at their Network Operations Center notify 911 centers sooner during such events.
Noting that the Public Service Commission had met with Verizon only a few months ago to discuss improving its communication with emergency management officials, PSC Assistant Executive Director Anthony Myers said he was disappointed.
"What occurred was not adequate," he said.
Montgomery officials said the problem might be more complex. At one point on Jan. 26, no cell phone calls were getting through to 911, county spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said.
"It couldn't have been just the volume of calls that caused us not to get cell phone calls," he said. "There has to be something else at work here."
The problem goes back to at least August, when a Rockville man had a heart attack and his friends tried for 20 minutes to call 911.
Lacefield said the county has not received a formal explanation from Verizon for the failure.
Verizon spokesman Harry J. Mitchell told The Gazette that the company has delivered reliable 911 service to the Washington metropolitan area since the 1970s. However, the extremely high call volumes during the Jan. 26 snowstorm caused some calls to 911 to fail, Mitchell said.
The call center received 4,242 emergency calls that day. Brian Melby, director of the county's 911 center, said he is unsure of the average number of calls.
David Rotenstein of Silver Spring said he was unable to reach 911 on Jan. 26 from a cell phone or land line phone. He tried calling for about a half-hour while he watched downed live wires nearly ignite a wooden fence near his home.
When he finally did get through to 911, Rotenstein said he was put on hold for several minutes. The situation was exasperating for him and others whose expectation is that when they dial 911 they will be able to ask for help.
"Their No. 1 obligation is to protect the public and to protect property and if their system is incapable of achieving that then they need to fix the problem," he said.
In Prince George's County, there have been at least three recent glitches at the 911 center most recently on Jan. 31, when cell phone calls could not be received between 9:36 p.m. and 2 a.m., County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) wrote in a letter to Verizon on Feb. 1.
Similar outages occurred Dec. 17, when cell phone callers could not reach 911 dispatchers for seven hours, and on Jan. 26 when the system was down for two-and-a-half hours. In the letter, Baker stated that county officials have received no explanation for the outages from Verizon.
Melby said that during a major emergency such as a blizzard or disaster, even if the county had additional capacity for calls, there's no guarantee that callers will reach a dispatcher.
"When you get buried in phone calls you're going to get busies," he said.
One fix the county is exploring is increasing its capacity for cell phone calls. About 70 percent of calls to the 911 center come from cell phones, he said.