Verizon among carriers cited by FCC for 911 calling outages

Carriers including Verizon Communications Inc. didn’t follow their own procedures for backup power and system design, causing 911 emergency-calling service to fail for more than 2 million people after storms last June, U.S. regulators said.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a statement accompanying an agency report issued Thursday, said he will seek rules to strengthen 911 service.

“These failures are unacceptable and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 9-1-1,” Genachowski said, without announcing a date for agency action.

Emergency calls were disrupted in parts of six states after storms with powerful winds, called derechos, hammered the eastern U.S. on June 29, knocking out commercial power.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, almost 1,900 calls to 911 weren’t routed to emergency operators in a 29-hour period after backup generators failed at a Verizon office, according to the report from the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

The FCC may consider stronger backup-power requirements for central telephone offices, more tests of 911 circuits, and better designs so a single point of failure doesn’t cripple wide areas of service, according to the report.

The agency’s report traced a cascading series of failures after generators didn’t work properly in two Verizon offices in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs, cutting 911 service in four jurisdictions. Fairfax County resorted to a Twitter message the morning of June 30 telling its 1.1 million residents to “go to the nearest police or fire station to report emergencies,” according to a county report submitted to the FCC in August.

Seventeen public-safety call centers serving more than 2 million people in three states failed entirely, and some 911 service, such as location identification, was lost at 77 call centers in six states serving 3.6 million people, according to the FCC report.

Areas suffering 911 disruptions after the June storms included West Virginia, where service is provided by Frontier Communications Corp., and Ohio, where service is provided by Verizon, Frontier and CenturyLink Inc., the FCC said.

New York-based Verizon has corrected the cause of the generator problems in northern Virginia, Anthony Melone, Verizon executive vice president and chief technology officer, said Thursday.

“We have acted diligently and decisively to resolve the operational and communications issues that arose,” Melone said. “Our performance during Hurricane Sandy in late October demonstrated the substantial progress we’ve made.”

June’s storms caused greater havoc on emergency calls than Hurricane Sandy, which left most 911 services intact, according to the FCC.

Hurricane Sandy knocked out mobile service in parts of 10 states and the District of Columbia, generating fresh questions about ways to keep wireless networks working when disasters hit. Telephone companies went to court and blocked backup power rules for mobile phone sites that the FCC proposed in 2007, after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.