ROCKVILLE – Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-4) called the July 10 two-hour shutdown of the 911 system in the County a nightmare scenario come true.
“I will have to confess that I usually have one recurring nightmare and this is the one,” Navarro said. “It’s when I’m trying to call 911 and I can’t get through.”
On Tuesday the council was briefed on the cause of the shutdown and the preventative steps that will be taken by the County’s emergency management officials.
A power outage caused the 911 system at the County’s Alternative Emergency Communications Center (AECC) in Rockville to shut down.
During the roughly two-hour period when the 911 call system was shutdown, two people died as those assisting them tried to call 911, but only received a busy single.
The cause of the shutdown in the 911 system was due to the breakdown in the Heating Ventilating and Air Condition (HVAC) unit that cools the Uninterruptable Power Source (UPS) or batteries that power the 911 system.
The UPS room reached about 120 degrees causing UPS to shut down.
The 911 system then went onto commercial power but a flicker in the building’s power caused the whole 911 system to shut down completely.
“Basically what happened is that the unit froze as a result the UPS shutdown because it overheated,” said David Dise, director of the Department of General Services.
Dise said the HVAC unit at the AECC is 22 years old and that typically HVAC unit have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.
The HVAC unit that failed, was last serviced in May, and passed all safety inspections according to Dise.
“If it’s operating, and we did do a preventative maintenance review and it was operating at the time, we would continue to watch it,” said Dise of the HVAC unit. “But as long as it’s operating, we wouldn’t just routinely replace it unless there was a problem.”
Dise not say what caused the HVAC to break down, but did rule out that the system could have leaked.
The 911 outage happened at the County’s back emergency communication center. Usually 911 calls are operated out of the Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC), but the County was upgrading the phones at the PSCC, moving the 911 calls to the backup facility in Rockville.
“I can’t imagine why there wasn’t a more sophisticated protocol when it comes to protecting our most important assets, which are our emergency operations,” Navarro said. “That’s a real concern to me, I just don’t understand.”
During the roughly two hour period when the County’s 911 system was down, 265, 911 calls were attempted according to Bill Ferretti, director of the Emergency Communications Center for Montgomery County Police.
Ferretti said about 100 calls would be about average for a late summer night or early morning, such was the case when the 911 system shutdown on July 10, but the number rapidly increased as people repeated called 911 as they could not get through.
“You can’t tell whether that’s one person making 10 different calls or whether that was 10 different people,” Ferretti said.
The council public safety committee will be briefed again about the outage at their committee meeting Oct. 13.