12 Investigates: 911 failure during storms

Published: Feb. 15, 2013 at 2:13 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2013 at 2:02 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Let's face it, these days your cell phone is your life line - but will it work when you need it most?

None of us can forget June's freak storm that knocked out power to millions and killed 22 people. In parts of Virginia, 911 failed; calls for help could not get through.

The wicked winds brought a laser lightning show and rippling rain June 29. It's called a "derecho" - a unique and massive storm, with near hurricane force winds, crossed the entire Midwest, slamming the east coast.

The following morning, in the wake of destruction, death and power outages, the unthinkable happened: unprecedented and critical loss of 911 services in six states. The worst of it in Virginia.

Nearly two million people could not call for help.

"In fact, a lot of local governments were telling people to go to their local fire stations, go to their local police get help. Because they could not get through on 911," said Bob Speildenner.

In the weeks that followed, state and federal regulators - even the governor - began questioning what went wrong here.

The State Corporation Commission and the FCC say the 911 outage was avoidable, and they blame Verizon, raising serious concerns about the "overall condition of Verizon's equipment in its Virginia offices."

In northern Virginia, no matter which telephone company is used to make a 911 call, it's Verizon that routes the call to the closest dispatch center. Verizon does the same in Metro Richmond and several of the surrounding counties.

According to the SCC, the 911 outages "put thousands of Virginia citizens at risk." The agency says Verizon allowed equipment and facilities at many of its office to "deteriorate," and even questions if similar problems exist at other 911 centers in Virginia.

In a statement, a spokesperson from Verizon says the company is correcting the issues with 911 and is reviewing critical 911 facilities across the rest of the state:

"We have made strong progress since then in strengthening 911 service and we're continuing to work with the public safety community and local, state and federal government officials to provide the best possible 911 service."

Regulators did commend Verizon's openness and willingness to expose and fix the problems with 911.

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