FCC slams Verizon over loss of 911 during storm

The FCC is attempting to strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the US’ 911 networks, after concluding that Verizon was responsible for the service outages last summer triggered by a major storm.

Known as a ‘derecho’, the storm hit the mid-Atlantic region last June. Widespread outages meant that 1.5 million Verizon customers were unable to make landline calls, including 911 calls. Twenty-two people died during the storm.

In all, says the FCC, 77 911 call centers, serving more than 3.6 million people, lost some degree of connectivity. Seventeen 911 call centers, mostly in northern Virginia and West Virginia, lost service completely, leaving more than two million residents unable to reach emergency services.  

“Americans must be able to reach 911, especially in times of natural disasters.  Today’s report on the June 2012 derecho finds that a number of preventable system failures caused major disruptions to communications  providers’ networks connecting to 911 call centers during and shortly after the storm,” says FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

“As a result, 911 was partially or completely unavailable to millions of Americans – in some instances, for several days. These failures are unacceptable and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911.”

Verizon comes in for particular criticism as, says the FCC, it know its network was under par. Two days before the storm, it’s alleged, a generator failed a reliability test; and when the storm hit it failed altogether.

“The failure of backup power at the Arlington central office directly resulted in the loss of 911 service to residents in northern Virginia, key switching capabilities, and virtually all of Verizon’s network monitoring capabilities in the area,” concludes the FCC.

It’s now planning to issue a new set of rules forcing network operators to introduce – and thoroughly test – more back-up systems.

“The report released today by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau details the serious service breakdowns both during and after the storm that the staff uncovered in our networks.  Tragically, many of these were avoidable interruptions involving a lack of back-up power to central offices or failures of the service providers’ monitoring systems,” says Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Carriers should test their networks and ensure that plans are in place in case of an emergency.”