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Friday, August 24, 2012

Verizon, Dominion address derecho failures at Town Hall

A tree crashed into the roof of this house on Terrace Drive, Annandale, during the derecho.
At a Town Hall convened by Del. Kaye Kory Aug. 23, a Verizon executive blamed the epic fail of 911 emergency services during the derecho storm June 29 on “multiple failures cascading.”

911 service was completely out from 7:36 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 30 and “service was sporadic” for the next three days, states an overview of the situation by Fairfax County in comments sent to the Federal Communications Commission Aug. 17.

Doug Sullivan, vice president of business services at Verizon, said the company is “taking corrective action,” including audits of the backup systems, establishing “a more robust communications process,” and implementing procedures to prevent something like that from happening again.

According to the county’s comments to the FCC, “Nearly 1,900 911 calls entered Verizon’s system but were not routed to the county during the first 29 hours alone/” Data provided by Verizon doesn’t show when calls were placed or how many callers were able to get through after service was partially restored.

Kory told Sullivan she and other elected officials “would have appreciated some communications from Verizon” during the storm and its aftermath, noting that “all we got were news releases.”

The county charges that “Verizon’s failure to give the county prompt and effective notice of the 911 outage hindered the county’s ability to respond.”

The failure can’t all be blamed on the derecho, as the county notes this was just the latest in a series of 911 outages in the region, most of them occurring during bad weather when emergency service is most crucially needed.

When asked how many people were affected by the failure to access the 911 system, Sullivan said, “We don’t have an assessment for that.” At least people who called 911 would have known that their call wasn’t going through.

Dominion was unprepared when the derecho struck because the storm happened so suddenly, said Timothy Sargeant, manager of state and local affairs for Dominion Resources Services.

When a hurricane or blizzard is predicted, you usually have several days to move vehicles and crews into place, Sargeant said. “None of that occurred with the derecho, a hurricane-like event with winds of 80 to 90 miles per hour in some areas.”

Approximately 63 percent of Northern Virginia customers—526,000 households—lost power. While electricity was restored to 90 percent of customers within four days, Dominion states, it took a week to get everybody back on line.

The company had 26,000 work stations to repair, including 11,000 in Northern Virginia. In some places, entire circuits were down, and the repair work was complicated by downed trees blocking roads.

Dominion’s top priorities for restoring power are critical services such as hospitals, fire and rescue stations, cooling centers, and water treatment plants, Sargeant said. More than 5,600 out-of-state workers—some from as far away as Canada and Florida—came to Virginia to help Dominion workers.

He said Dominion relies on people calling in to report power outages, because even if the company has restored power to a neighborhood, there still might be gaps.

Areas with underground utilities fared better, but were not immune from outages. Kory noted one Lincolnia neighborhood in her district with underground wires lost power because even buried systems are connected to power lines that are above ground at some point.

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