911 still vulnerable to powerful storms

Carl Brown tries to make a phone call as surf crashes against the boardwalk that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in Atlantic City, N.J., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Two massive storms in the past five months have caused widespread outages and even an emergency system failure.

The question now: Does new technology leave people more vulnerable to emergency system failures and the dangers that go with them?

The 911 system failed in most of Northern Virginia on June 29 when a derecho knocked out power to Verizon’s facility in Arlington and two backup power systems also failed. This caused problems for both wireless and landline calls.

Steve Souder, Fairfax County’s 911 director, says the system is vulnerable to both severe weather and terrorist attacks.

“Clearly, in the National Capital region, there is a heightened level of awareness, as there should be,” Souder says, of terrorist attacks.

“There are far, far worse things out there that could occur that could impact 911 for a much, much longer period of time than the roughly one day that it was out in the National Capitol region,” Souder says, of the weather-related outage.

But solutions are hard to find.

Tony Lewis, Verizon’s Mid-Atlantic regional vice-president, says the company moved away from hard line phones because that was what the customers wanted.

So, when Superstorm Sandy knocked power out for millions of customers up and down the East Coast, many searched for pay phones for basic communication because their cellphones and iPad batteries were dead.

But locating hard line phones of any kind, including pay phones, was difficult.

“I think it’s pretty commonly recognized in all the 6,000 911 centers in the United States that approximately 70 percent of our calls today come from wireless devices,” says Souder.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Council of Governments is currently looking at ways to upgrade the 911 system.

In the meantime, Lewis advises consumers to make sure they have extra fully charged cellphone batteries when storms approach.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)


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