Friday, February 18, 2011

FCC Says Verizon Hung Up on 10,000 Wireless 9-1-1 Calls

New 9-1-1 Verizon Outages Happen in Metro Washington, as FCC Issues Complaint 02/18/2011 San Francisco (Updated: 2:20 PM) - Calls made to 9-1-1 public safety answering points (PSAPs) are never supposed to be blocked or disconnected. Never. It doesn't matter if a caller is dialing from a wired landline or a wireless phone, a call dialing those three digits should never fail.

Update: As we were posting this story, the Washington Post, and public safety personnel on various Twitter accounts have reported enhanced 9-1-1 (E 9-1-1) failures in Arlington and Fairfax County, Virginia. These areas, like the two counties in Maryland that the FCC issued its letter about, are both in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, and both served by the Verizon public switched telephone network (PSTN). As of the Post's update of 1:40 PM, Arlington County officials are reporting "the 911 system is back in operation." 

The Federal Communications Commission just released a statement saying that in January Verizon (NYSE: VZ) broke the cardinal rule of 9-1-1 calls always getting through. 

FCC says that because of apparent faults in Verizon's network, "approximately 10,000 wireless emergency calls to 911 call centers in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, Maryland, during the January 26, 2011 snowstorm" failed to connect to their appropriate PSAPs. FCC wants to know what happened, and why it happened. 

Most significantly, FCC has serious concerns about the reliability of Verizon's larger network to handle 9-1-1 calls in all circumstances, as stated in the Commission's letter to the carrier.

James Barnett, Rear Admiral (ret.), the Commission's Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, yesterday issued a letter to Verizon requesting that the carrier "provide the Commission with a full assessment of what caused the failure to connect, identify remedies to help prevent similar occurrences in the future, and implement solutions to quickly restore reliable network operations when there are problems."
The Commission is today saying "The Bureau’s preliminary findings show that on January 26th all 14 circuits in the Verizon network that properly route all wireless calls in Montgomery County failed and nine of 10 Verizon circuits in Prince George’s County failed over a five-hour period on the night in question.  This resulted in approximately 8,300 blocked 911 calls in Montgomery County and 1,700 blocked 911 calls in Prince George’s County that evening."
Barnett, in his letter to Verizon got right to the critical nature of Verizon's failure “… any 911 call which is not connected can have serious consequences, but the large number of missed 911 calls on January 26th is alarming. The public rightly expects that they can use 911 to reach the appropriate first responders in an emergency.” 
"In addition to the cases highlighted above," said the FCC in a press release of early afternoon today, Washington time, "the letter notes that similar incidents involving blocked 911 calls occurred in 2010 in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, with one incident resulting in delayed urgent medical attention for a caller who was unable to reach 911. A similar problem with wireless 911 calls being blocked from reaching a Fairfax County, Virginia 911 call center occurred on January 26, 2011 as well."
Prince George's County 9-1-1 PSAP in Bowie, MD (Photo:
Barnett's "Bureau is requesting that Verizon respond to the following questions, among others, to address the public safety concerns raised by the series of recent incidents in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties:
Q) Is the problem localized to the 911 call centers using the Hyattsville and Rockville, Maryland selective routers?
Q) Was this the same problem that occurred in Fairfax County, Virginia?
Q) Can this problem occur elsewhere in the nation?
Q) Has this problem occurred in other states and if so, in which states?
Chief Barnett requested that Verizon complete its assessment and provide a comprehensive response to the FCC no later than March 10, 2011. In addition to the written response, Chief Barnett has requested a meeting with Verizon representatives within the next two weeks to discuss the matter and identify appropriate resolutions to address the problems identified."

Our Take: The FCC letter to Verizon raises the most serious issues about public safety calling access to PSAPs we have ever seen. The Commission does not typically ask the type of questions it is asking Verizon lightly. FCC's concerns with perhaps wider problems, perhaps below reporting requirement thresholds (our speculation here) become the key issue in this entire matter. The Washington Post's great reporting about 9-1-1 outages in two Northern Virgina counties today further, and critically underline, what should now be extreme concern with Verizon's network in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

We've been through PSTN outages, and 9-1-1 outages when serving as a public telecom official. We predict Verizon's first response will be to cover this issue with their flaks, to deny much of anything at all is wrong. FCC and in-region officials should tell VZ to keep the press flaks out if it, and work to disclose what is wrong in its network. 

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