Montgomery Co. officials face tough questions over 911 outage

ROCKVILLE, Md. — A panel of agency leaders responsible for the operations and maintenance of the 911 system in Montgomery County faced questions from county council members Tuesday about what went wrong last month when the system experienced an outage of nearly two hours.

The panel explained the sequence of events that led to the 911 outage in a step-by-step accounting. But council members said the inability to get help when they need it instills fear in constituents, and some members were dissatisfied with the officials’ explanations.

“I have to confess that I have one recurring nightmare, and this is the one: It’s when I’m trying to call 911 and I can’t get through,” said county council member Nancy Navarro.

As many 100 people might have tried to call 911 during the outage period between 11:10 p.m. July 10 and 1:09 a.m. July 12, the emergency call center estimated.

“The notion that 100 people in their most frightened moment, and life-threatening moment, could not reach out for help? It just can never happen again,” said council member Roger Berliner.

At one point during the county council work session, Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger pointed out it’s not uncommon for 911 lines to be busy in general.

“There are times — when there’s a high volume of 911 calls coming through — that people can’t get through on 911,” he said.

The county has 36 lines dedicated to taking 911 calls, he said. “So that 37th person who dials 911 if all those lines are in use doesn’t get through,” Manger said. “Is that a 911 failure?”

Manger said the incident is a good reminder for people to have the numbers of their local police and fire stations handy. He said he now has that information posted on his refrigerator at home.

But some council members weren’t satisifed with that advice.

“To just simply tell people to have this other number — that’s not going to work,” said council member Craig Rice. He noted that residents are constantly told that in the event of a fire in their home they should evacuate. “We train people to get out of the house as quickly as possible — not to go look at a refrigerator and call a back up number.”

A 40-year-old man from the Twinbrook area of Rockville and a 91-year-old woman from Olney died during the outage.

Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Tim Firestine said the county still hasn’t determined whether those deaths could be attributed to the outage.

“We’re still working on the timeline,” he said. “We know our response timeline. What we’re trying to figure out is when those calls first came through.”

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett ordered an audit of what led to the 911 outage. That report is expected to be complete in September.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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