County probes 911 outages

Fire caused July 4 problem in region

Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

A summer electrical fire and at least three other circumstances that caused 911 service outages in Southern Maryland have prompted Verizon to lay a new fiber ring across Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

Jason Groves, Verizon's assistant vice president of governmental affairs, came before the Charles County commissioners Tuesday to explain the steps the communication company is taking to ensure that the chances of such a major disruption to such a vital service happening again are as close to zero as possible.

"[Depending] on what system goes down, 911 can in fact be impacted," Groves said. "To the best of our technological capabilities there's almost no way to guarantee that under any and all circumstances that one would be able to [get uninterrupted 911 services]. As far as build-out … we have as much concern as you do; it is part of our networking system and we want our citizens to be able to call, so there's no desire to provide less than an efficient system. It is an electronic sorting database. Lines and fiber and things that go around [are] the best we can do to provide additional redundancies so that you reduce the amount of times that could happen."

"Things happen, systems break; we understand that and are sensitive to that. Equipment grows old. Our biggest concern is the perceived lack of communications between Verizon … and some disconnect between different divisions within the company …" Charles County Emergency Services Director Bill Stephens said.

Stephens said after the meeting that it is important to maintain a strong working relationship with the county's public safety partners, in this case, Verizon.

He said with the various dates of staccato 911 service, "there was some disconnect between people who needed to be talking to each other internally to Verizon and externally to us.

"We're concerned about that because when that happens they don't have the information they need and we don't have the information we need to move forward and fix [a problem]," he said.

Stephens said that when it comes to an after-action report it's easy to get all of the players around the table, but when there's an ongoing emergency "that's when we need to be talking the most."

"What we're tying to do is work a better partnership so when these things do happen we're all actively working together, talking with each other, cooperating, because this is an essential service we provide to the public. To have it interrupted is not in anybody's best interest," he said.

According to Groves' information, on July 4 a transformer atop a Calvert County telephone pole caught fire and burned down the pole, spreading out through the fibers and causing intermittent outages affecting service to the area.

"The kind of situation we had here was a unique situation. In the 10 years I've been doing this I have not seen a pole fire do what took place on this particular incident," Groves said, "figuring out what happened, who needed to know and what was actually down; this was a new one."

A transformer looks like a metal barrel and its purpose is to lower the high voltage of a current coming off the power grid to something manageable for homeowners' equipment. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative owned this one in particular.

"We had an equipment failure on the line and that caused the pole to catch on fire," SMECO spokesman Tom Dennison said. "These things happen. Anytime you have high voltage electricity going along these wooden poles, sometimes there's different attachments to the poles: insulators, fuses … when they work perfectly 99.9 percent of the time you don't notice them; unfortunately in this situation we had a failure there, which caused the fire."

Dennison said he was sure SMECO would be involved in some way with the new fiber ring going in.

"Some of our stuff is on Verizon poles, but a vast, vast majority of Verizon's are on our poles," Dennison said.

A letter sent to the Maryland Public Service Commission dated Sept. 13 and signed by the four Charles County commissioners indicated that on Independence Day "the 911 system throughout Southern Maryland was impacted by this outage. Initially the problem seemed to be that Calvert and St. Mary's were unable to receive land line calls, and Charles could not transfer 911 calls to those two jurisdictions. We were ultimately able to determine, through our own efforts that the impact to Charles County was intermittent."

According to an article that ran in The Enterprise on Sept. 2, landline phones could not connect to 911 services in St. Mary's County on Aug. 29. The article reported that the phone system was down for roughly five hours, but cell phones still could connect to the 911 center.

The Charles County commissioners' letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission also mentioned the Aug. 29 outage as well as a Sept. 6 service interruption that resulted in a nearly four-hour period when 911 calls from three exchanges in Indian Head could not connect.

There was another instance Aug. 1 in Leonardtown for three hours when the phone systems were down due to a defective transmitter card, David Zylak, director of the St. Mary's County Department of Public Safety, said during a St. Mary's County commissioners' meeting.

In response to commissioners' Vice President Edith J. Patterson's (D) question about what happened during the four-hour outages, Stephens told her the county could not know for sure.

"We don't believe that we had significant outages on our 911 side. We had some problems, but I don't think they significantly impacted the callers," Stephens said.

Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) asked about the causes for the two other outages, which Stephens said he could not answer.

In a press release issued by Verizon and attributed to Groves, a construction crew accidentally cutting a cable caused one incident over the past few months.

Groves said the new ring will be up on poles and in the ground, depending on the topography of the counties. Verizon also would be looking into all of the outage instances and their causes.

The new fiber ring will be up and active within the year, the press release states.