Md. commission expands inquiry into Verizon's 911 service

Some emergency calls came through without caller ID or location

August 02, 2011|By Theola Labbé-DeBose, The Washington Post

Maryland utility regulators are expanding their investigation into Verizon's 911 service after some emergency calls came through without caller ID or location information.

On May 30, police and fire dispatchers in Maryland and Virginia did not receive two key pieces of information that usually accompany an emergency call: the caller's location and the phone number they were calling from, according to the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The problem lasted for three hours and affected 911 calls from IP networks and wireless phones, which, according to cell phone industry research, now account for 70 percent of all 911 calls.

In addition, the commission said, Verizon may not have adequately notified local call centers of the problem, and when the centers tried to report the issue on their own, they had difficulty.

Verizon officials said a power outage at a New Jersey central office affected data on the Maryland and Virginia emergency calls.

The Memorial Day incident is the latest example of public safety trouble for Verizon, which provides 911 services in Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia. Thousands of cellphone users trying to reach 911 dispatchers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties could not get through during a paralyzing January snowstorm. The incident prompted an inquiry by the Federal Communication Commission, and the Maryland commission held two hearings on the complaints.

The five-person state panel made an initial finding in March that Verizon had violated a section of state law that requires utilities to provide "equipment, services and facilities that are safe, adequate ... and efficient," and chastised Verizon for not notifying local call centers about 911 trouble. The PSC was deliberating whether to fine Verizon but had not made a final decision.

The commission has extended the earlier inquiry to the May 30 incident, ordering Verizon to file an explanation about "the causes, nature and extent of the 911 call problems." Verizon's reply is due Aug. 11, and the commission has scheduled an Aug. 18 hearing.

The commission said it would not comment on an open investigation. But it may have learned of the May 30 phone troubles from a letter sent in June by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to Verizon CEO and board Chairman Ivan G. Seidenberg.

"The public is dependent on 911 and it is the gateway through which every emergency is initially reported," wrote Timothy L. Firestine, chief administrative officer for Montgomery County and a council member.

In a five-page reply, Maureen P. Davis, a Verizon vice president, said a malfunctioning circuit breaker at a New Jersey central office tripped on May 29. It sent out an alarm but Verizon technicians didn't dispatch someone to repair it. That pushed the system onto its backup battery. "As a result," Davis wrote, "batteries in the central office drained slowly (over approximately 12 hours) until they caused certain transport equipment to fail."

Verizon disciplined the technicians, Davis said. "Had Verizon's procedures been followed, the circuit breaker likely would have been replaced before the batteries in the central office drained to that point."

The reason a power problem in a New Jersey office can disrupt 911 calls in Maryland and Virginia has to do with how emergency cell phone and Internet calls are routed, Davis said. Since those calls don't come from a fixed service location, carriers tend to use third-party services that link the phone number to a location; that data was routed through the same Verizon office that had the power outage.

The company plans to route wireless and Internet emergency calls through several offices to avoid a similar problem in the future, Davis said.

In the Washington region, neither government officials nor Verizon could say how many 911 calls were affected in the May 30 incident. Fairfax County, Va., said dispatchers took 95 calls without any identifying information. In Montgomery County, 193 emergency calls were affected. The district did not have any issues. In all three jurisdictions, no 911 landline calls were affected.

Even when they can see the information, dispatchers often still verify a 911 caller's address or phone number. Having the data appear automatically saves valuable time and lives, said Steven Souder, director of 911 services in Fairfax County. "If for some reason a person got overcome by smoke or couldn't speak, we wouldn't know where to send the help," he said.

After the January incident, Verizon started e-ailing Maryland emergency call centers within 15 minutes of discovering a 911 service problem, and the email updates continue until the problem is fixed, company officials said. The repair update emails are also sent if a call center reaches out to Verizon about a service problem.

Bill Ferretti, deputy director of the Montgomery County 911 Emergency Communications Center, said the office received several e-mails during the May 30 incident once Verizon confirmed it had opened a trouble ticket. However, Ferretti said the agency was on hold with Verizon for about 50 minutes before it could report the problem.

"This is technology and technology breaks," Ferretti said. "The positive thing is that some of the lessons from January were applied and put into practice. Has it gone far enough? No, there's still work to be done."

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