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Power, 911 Outages Shows Need for Communications Improvements

Fairfax County Executive Ed Long gave a special report to supervisors Tuesday.

In the four hours following the June 29 , 911 calls received in Fairfax County increased 415 percent above normal. But in the early morning hours of June 30, 911 service failed, and officials want to know why.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova intends to propose a task force or investigation into the 911 failure at a meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments meeting Wednesday, she said during Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.

The director of Fairfax County’s emergency communications center told the Washington Post last week it took Verizon roughly three hours to officially notify the county that 911 was down after the emergency line went out at 6:30 a.m. June 30, the Post reported.

The 911 problems in Arlington, Fairfax County, Prince William County and elsewhere started in the aftermath of the June 29 derecho and were not fully cleared up until July 3 in some areas. The main culprit seems to have been a Verizon "trunk line" in Arlington.

The rare storm resulted in the death of four Fairfax County residents and nine others in Virginia. It left more than a million people in the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. without electricity during the hottest week of the year. More than 100 homes in Fairfax County were damaged by falling trees and debris, and more than 120 intersections were left without traffic lights, creating significant dangers for pedestrians and drivers.

Social Media, Text and In-Person Communications

Hunter Mill District Supervisors Catherine Hudgins was deeply concerned with the county’s communication problems in a time of such crisis, saying the county should be able to act as a 911 service if the emergency hotline is not available.

Mount Vernon District Supervisors Gerry Hyland urged county staff to come up with a system that communities and neighborhoods could enact — such as door-to-door contact — so they could help each other in the event they cannot reach county or public safety officials.

"I think we have to do that because when 911 went out, they can't call anyone," Hyland said. "Drilling down to the basic community level … is essential to make sure that we don't miss anyone."

Supervisor Pat Herrity called, again, for the implementation of a 911 text messaging service. 

"We also have a whole new generation that thinks first to text rather than call. I know the ability to text 911 has been successfully implemented in other jurisdictions in the country. I believe with the Commonwealth’s review of our 911 services, now is a good time to look at the potential to add this service so that 911 can be reached in the periods of high usage that normally occur after significant events," Herrity said.

Herrity will be serving on the state's panel reviewing 911 performance. 

In his report, County Executive Ed Long said the county had some difficulties getting the word out to its residents during the height of the crisis. 

Hudgins worried social media, while current and useful, wasn't enough to reach constituents when there's no electricity.

But Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust was more concerned with what he saw as a glaring lack of resources.

"Recognizing the efforts of the resources that we have is not the same thing as saying we have adequate resources, because I honestly believe that we did not," he said.

Broadcasting Cooling Centers Information

Foust said the county information about "cooling opportunities," or places where residents could go to escape the heat and maybe charge their phones, should have been broadcast on the radio and made more widely available.

According to Long's report, all county facilities that had electricity were open to the public as cooling centers. But many county facilities were without power, a fact Supervisors didn't think was conveyed well to the public.

"I think we did have a failure with opening and advertising cooling centers," said Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity.

Although supervisors did have criticisms of how the situation was handled and recommendations for improvements, all agreed county staff and public safety officials worked hard and admirably in their response.

Sully District Supervisor John Frey called it "tremendous," adding: "There was no advanced warning. This was not a hurricane that we had followed or a snow storm that we had prepared for."

"We were successful in some areas, we were unsuccessful in other areas," Long said. "We can do better and we want to use this event to figure out we can do better so that when the next incident comes we can be better prepared."

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