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FCC: Verizon Dropped Thousands of 911 Calls During Snowstorm

Tue, 02/22/2011 - 7:13am
Maisie Ramsay

The FCC is asking Verizon to explain why it dropped thousands of wireless 911 calls placed over its trunks in Maryland during a snowstorm in late January.

According to a letter from FCC public safety and security chief James Arden Barnett, about 8,300 wireless 911 calls to the Montgomery County Public Safety Answering Point routed over the Verizon network were not connected and an additional 1,700 wireless calls to the Prince George's County PSAP were not connected during a Jan. 26 blizzard in Maryland, where both counties are located.

"The large number of missed 9-1-1 calls on January 26 is truly alarming," Barnett wrote. "I therefore request that Verizon provide an explanation of the causes of this and similar failures, provide Verizon's assessment of the possibility of occurrence in other locations and describe what actions Verizon is taking to prevent recurrence of these problems."

Barnett said that reports filed with the FCC indicated that Verizon's system automatically took one of its wireless 911 trunks out of service at 5:15 p.m. on Jan. 26. In a little over three hours, the system took out each of the 14 trunks handling wireless calls so that all the trunks handling wireless 911 traffic in Montgomery County were taken out of service by 8:45 p.m.

The trunks have working alarms, but Verizon did not notify the PSAPs of the failure after the alarms went off, according to the letter. The Montgomery County PSAP recognized the problem just prior to 11 p.m. and notified Verizon. By 11:15 p.m., Verizon had placed all the trunks back into service.

"It is our understanding that this was not an overload. We understand that it is normal in large-scale emergencies for the call volume to exceed the trunk capacity, in which case calls will be blocked until another trunk opens up," Barnett wrote. "In this instance, however, the Verizon system took each of the fourteen trunks handling wireless calls out of service sequentially so that they could not receive any more calls."

A similar problem happened that same evening with Prince George's County PSAP, where eight of the 10 trunks that serve wireless calls were taken out of service automatically by Verizon's system on Jan.26 by 8:30 p.m., with a ninth trunk taken out shortly afterwards. Four were restored by 10:30 p.m.; all trunks were finally restored by approximately 11 p.m.

The outages on Jan. 26 were "not unique," wrote Barnett. Both counties had experienced prior outages similar to the problems that occurred during the late January snowstorm, including a July 25 incident that resulted in delayed urgent medical attention for a caller who was unable to reach 911.

In all cases, Verizon did not notify the PSAPs when the outages occurred, Barnett said.

Instead, the PSAPs became aware of the outages only when they received complaints from callers or were notified by another PSAP. The PSAPs then notified Verizon.

"We are particularly concerned that this problem may be widespread across Verizon's footprint," Barnett wrote.

The FCC is asking Verizon to provide information by March 10 about whether the problem is localized to certain routers, if it has happened in other states, and what solutions there are to the outages.

Verizon Communications said it is taking the matter seriously and is "working cooperatively" to answer the FCC's questions.

"Our objective is to provide the best service to our customers, and we will continue to work with 911 centers and others to ensure that callers receive the level of service they deserve and expect when they call 911," said Harry Mitchell, director of public relations for Verizon Communications, in a statement.

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