Derecho-related outages put 911 system under scrutiny
What is in this article?
Although the force of the derecho winds were not as great as those experienced in many hurricanes, the devastation was more severe than most hurricanes, in terms of lives lost, injuries and property damage. In terms of 911 communications, there were examples of outages caused by physical damage to key facilities, as is often the case during severe weather events.
But the biggest problems were related to power outages, the most notable of which left Verizon Communications unable to complete 911 calls because backup-power supplies failed at two key public-safety answering points (PSAPs), impacting more than a million people in Virginia for at least several hours, according to the FCC.
“Our backup power systems should have withstood the derecho without the resulting 911 outages, but they did not,” Kyle Malady, Verizon’s senior vice president for global network engineering and operations, testified before Congress.
And the problems did not stop there.
“Even after arrangements for rerouting 911 calls finally were made, 911 service was significantly degraded for days — in fact, 911 features that we all now take for granted and which public-safety officials rely on, like automated number and location identification, were not fully restored everywhere for days,” according to Turetsky’s written testimony.
Compounding the situation was a lack of communication between the PSAPs and the carriers. In many cases, PSAPs expressed disappointment that they did not have more visibility into the outage and restoration process, so that they could make more informed decisions regarding their options.
In West Virginia, several 911 call centers were unable to provide service because of carrier-network failures, forcing public-safety agencies to resort to broadcasters and social media to let people know how to contact those who could provide emergency help, according to Turetsky. In some cases, first responders told those needing help to walk to their nearest police or fire station.
With properly functioning backup-power systems, most of the 911 problems could have been avoided. In the case of Verizon, the backup-power equipment was in place, but some components did not work when needed most.
“I think the clear takeaway from this event was that, to the extent that carriers have best practices in place to prevent these kinds of outages, they have to really make sure that they’re actually following them,” said Trey Forgety, director of government relations for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “In Verizon’s case, they had significant backup-power capabilities. They had predictable — and, therefore, I think preventable — failures in their control systems and fuel systems for those backup-power facilities.
“Since they have the best practices in place, they need to test them periodically, and they need to make sure that they really are following those best practices to prevent these kinds of outages.”