Emergency communications directors push for outage answers

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – It’s supposed to be a lifeline in a time of emergency, but Sunday for at least two hours, 911 calls went down all across Hampton Roads.

“Nobody had 911,” explained Captain Susan Canny with the Hampton Police Division. “We didn’t have wire line 911 or your home phone 911 lines coming in and we didn’t have wireless cell phone 911 lines coming in.”

Captain Susan Canny runs Hampton’s emergency communications. She says the problem was not with any call center  but with Verizon infrastructure. The outage impacted callers from James City County, Williamsburg, York-Poquoson, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore.

“We have been trying to get answers…for the past two days,” she said. “We still don’t have any definite concrete answers as to what happened.”

WAVY.com also reached out to a Verizon spokesperson, Melanie Ortel. She said in an email that Verizon is looking into the issue closely and will share an update, when available.

Monday, Canny and her counterparts from across the Peninsula worked to come up with a back-up plan should Verizon have an issue again. They invited a Verizon representative to the meeting, but Canny says no one from Verizon attended.

“We need to approach this as a joint group to have Verizon come forward and tell us what the problem was and get the problem corrected,” she said. Canny also said in the meantime, she and her counterparts are working as a group to try to come up with a plan-B, should Verizon have the same issue again.

“At this point we have an action plan to move forward to try to get our answers from Verizon and to try to move forward as jurisdictions to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she explained.

But, relying on Verizon to support 911 communications could eventually become a thing of the past.

“The current technology was installed in the mid-70s. We’re in the process as a nation of moving to next generation 911,” explained Terry Hall. Hall is the Chief of the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Emergency Communications Center. That center will be the first in the state to switch to an internet based system – that doesn’t rely on Verizon phone lines.

“Fast forward a year from now we’re IP [internet protocol] based next generation 911 supported and Hampton Roads went out, our system would still be functioning,” Hall explained. He said callers will be able to use cell phones to send texts, pictures, and video to dispatchers.

“That information will be put in the hands of 911 dispatchers who can then put them out to the first responders.”

That program is a pilot program for the state of Virginia. It will be the first of its kind in the commonwealth. Hall says they are running some tests on it now, but it should be up and running next year. The rest of the state could see the program expand in coming years, and the program should be implemented nationwide in about a decade.

For more information on the Next Generation 911 click here: http://www.911.gov/911-issues/standards.html

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