22 Aug 2014
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Verizon: 'We're Ready for Sandy'

Telecommunications company has spent months making improvements in hopes of avoiding another 911 system failure.

An estimated 2.3 million people lost access to 911 service this summer when the area was hit by a derecho. Now, with Hurricane Sandy lined up to potentially slam Northern Virginia, Verizon — the company that provides the emergency communication service — is confident that the long list of improvements it has made in the months since are enough to weather the storm.

"We're ready for Sandy," Verizon spokesman Harry J. Mitchell told Patch in an interview Friday evening.

In late September, Verizon released an 11-page Moving Forward presentation (see the PDF attached at the right) outlining the issues with its power system and internal and external communication that contributed to the 911 system failure — and the steps that have been or will be taken to correct those.

The specific cause of the disruptions to 911 services across Northern Virginia was the failure of one of two backup generators to start in Arlington and Fairfax counties, according to the report. The company's internal investigation also revealed that a power alarm in Fairfax was mis-categorized and therefore given a low priority.

The company also lost its ability to receive alarms that trigger a response to service impacts. Verizon mistakenly treated the massive outage as a network problem rather than a major storm event. And, according to the Washington Post, a communication breakdown between the company and local jurisdictions meant Verizon didn't find out that Fairfax County's 911 service was out until the county called and told them.

"We've been working at this ever since the derecho, or immediately after the derecho," Mitchell said. "But we have prepared for the storm. We are prepared for it. And we are prepared to respond to anything that will come up."

Verizon provides 911 service to a number of Virginia jurisdictions, primarily in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, the Richmond area and Roanoke.

In advance of the so-called "Frankenstorm," Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency Friday — activating the state's Emergency Operations Center to coordinate response 24 hours a day. Verizon, at the state's request, has people on-site in Richmond.

Verizon has made improvements to backup generators in Arlington and Fairfax counties, enhanced the way alarms trigger responses when service is affected and strengthened its communication with 911 directors across Northern Virginia. The company has adopted five recommendations to improve communications put forth by 911 directors in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties, along with the city of Alexandria.

The company held a conference call with 911 directors from across Northern Virginia on Friday in advance of the storm.

"We have put an extra emphasis on (communication) since Day 1, since we peeled the onion back and did our investigation," Mitchell said. "We could have done a better job communicating. And we've worked very hard since then to put in place a number of measures that would lead to better communication — and have led to better communication."

Verizon, for instance, now uses the same incident management system used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to the Moving Forward report. Verizon is working with Northern Virginia jurisdictions to develop a semi-annual drill by the end of this year, and provides the area's 911 operators with an updated contact list during the first week of each month.

Employees are on standby for crisis response and the company is ready and able to deploy crews from unaffected parts of the country should they be needed, according to a news release.

Verizon crisis management teams are monitoring the storm's path, confirming staff schedules, testing fuel supplies for backup generators, restocking its inventory of smartphone batteries and car charges and moving vehicles from low-lying areas, the release states.

The company's disaster recovery fleet includes a 51-foot mobile command center, two 53-foot mobile emergency calling centers and satellite trailers.

"As part of our prep work, we've gone out and tested all the generators," Mitchell said. "We tested the ones in Arlington and Fairfax. We topped them off with fuel. So if power goes out, we expect them to kick in."

Just as lessons learned from June's derecho are being applied now, any lessons taken from Hurricane Sandy will be applied in the future, Mitchell said.

"For any event you have, learning from it and applying the lessons learned from it is critical," he said. "So, yes, we'll be doing that for this as well."

Residential customers should report service problems online at www.verizon.com/outage or call 800-837-4966.

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