The Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has requested that Verizon provide the commission with a full assessment of what caused the failure to connect approximately 10,000 wireless emergency calls to 911 call centers in two Maryland counties during a snow storm on Jan. 26. It wants the operator to also identify remedies that would help prevent similar problems in the future.

The bureau said that its preliminary findings show that all 14 circuits in the Verizon network that route all wireless calls in Montgomery County failed, and that nine of 10 Verizon circuits in Prince George’s County failed, over a five-hour period on the night in question. This resulted in approximately 8,300 blocked 911 calls in Montgomery County and 1,700 blocked 911 calls in Prince George’s County that evening. A similar problem with wireless 911 calls being blocked from reaching a Fairfax County, Va., 911 call center occurred on Jan. 26 as well.

In addition to the cases highlighted, the letter notes that similar incidents involving blocked 911 calls occurred in 2010 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, with one incident resulting in delayed urgent medical attention for a caller who was unable to reach 911.

"We are particularly concerned that this problem may be widespread across Verizon's footprint," said Jamie Barnett, PSHSB bureau chief, in a letter to Verizon. "We therefore request that Verizon investigate the extent of the problem across its network."

Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell told Bloomberg that the operator has “been addressing this issue directly with the counties involved, and will work cooperatively to address the FCC's questions, as well. He added that the outage that affected Montgomery and Prince George's counties was caused by a "mass-call event." However, Barnett pointed out that Jan. 26 was not the first time such an outage has taken place in this area.

Verizon also has to appear before the Maryland Public Service Commission to explain a number of outages that have occurred since October.

But this isn’t the first time the PSHSB has voiced its concern about carrier network outages in general. Nearly a year ago, the bureau issued a public notice reminding telecom service providers of the importance of providing diversity and redundancy in the provisioning of E-911 and 911 services.

“Through an examination of network outage reports filed through the commission’s Network Outage Reporting System (NORS), the bureau has observed a significant number of 911/E-911 service outages caused by a lack of diversity that could have been avoided at little expense to the service provider,” the bureau wrote back on March 24, 2010.

While not enforceable, the purpose of the notice was to get the attention of wireless operators on this issue. And it appears this recent letter to Verizon also serves notice to the operator to get its act together. But how many notices is the FCC going to issue? If you do a search on 911 outages, there’s quite a few. And certainly those of you in the trenches know of many, many more. The negative publicity doesn’t seem to be creating enough embarrassment for the wireless operators to act as an effective deterrent, either. It’s time for some enforcement from the FCC.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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