Verizon needs to make itself available
Governmental agencies seek answers to 911 glitches
It has been a bad year for a couple of Maryland's public utilities. On second thought, it's been a bad year for customers of the utilities which covers a lot of residents.
Electric utility Pepco's travails have been well documented. Now, it comes to light that Verizon, which runs 911 service in a number of jurisdictions, dropped about 8,300 emergency calls in Montgomery County and another 1,700 calls in Prince George's County during a Jan. 26 snowstorm that hit the region.
To their credit, the Federal Communications Commission, the state Public Service Commission and the Montgomery County Council all want answers as to what went wrong. In fact, James Arden Barnett Jr., who is in charge of public safety and security for the FCC, told Verizon in a letter dated Feb. 17 that the large number of missed calls was "truly alarming."
For its part, Verizon has attributed the outages to the sheer volume of calls during the storm.
A day after the FCC's letter was sent, the company was saying all the right things when spokeswoman Sandra Arnette told Gazette reporter Erin Cunningham in an e-mail that Verizon "understands the critical function that 911 service provides to our customers and communities, and we take any 911 service disruption seriously."
Still, there were a couple of disturbing aspects to the Jan. 26 incident. The problems that day, it turns out, weren't the first time calls have been dropped. On Dec. 17, Prince George's had a similar outage, and on July 25, an outage in Montgomery resulted in delayed medical attention for a caller who couldn't reach 911.
Also, Verizon experienced outages last week in Northern Virginia that the company said were the result of faulty equipment and were unrelated to the Maryland problems.
The letter from Barnett describes what transpired Jan. 26. It says Verizon's system automatically took down one of 14 trunk lines that handle wireless calls in Montgomery County at 5:15 p.m. The system then proceeded to take down each of the 14 trunks by 8:45 p.m. A similar problem in Prince George's County took down nine of 10 trunks by shortly after 8:30 p.m.
More disturbing, perhaps, was that after the trunks' working alarms went off, signaling that the lines were down, Verizon did not notify the Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP, in either county, according to Barnett's letter. The same was the case in the prior outages.
Instead, Barnett wrote, the PSAPs became aware of the outages "only when they received complaints from callers or were notified by another PSAP." Assistant Chief of Police Wayne M. Jerman told the Montgomery County Council on Feb. 8 that the 911 glitch was discovered when dispatchers in Prince George's and Washington, D.C., reported they were receiving emergency calls from Montgomery.
On top of this, Montgomery council members remain angry with Verizon, which hasn't responded to the county's request for information about the Jan. 26 incident.
Council President Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring made the obvious connection in people's minds. "Here's another utility we're having problems with," she said, linking Verizon with the aforementioned electricity provider Pepco.
Of the failure to answer questions about the glitches, council Vice President Roger Berliner of Potomac said: "That's just totally unacceptable. This is life and death, and we need answers now."
Verizon now must show that there's substance behind its claim that it takes 911 service disruptions seriously. Its full cooperation with all governmental inquiries is essential.