- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

D.C. officials are still trying to determine what caused the power failure last week that shut down the city’s primary 911 emergency communications center for seven hours.

Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said yesterday that a city assessment team and officials with the Potomac Electric Power Co. are working together to determine what caused the July 29 outage that prevented dispatchers from tracking the location of emergency vehicles and the status of emergency calls.

She said there were problems with Pepco’s power feed and with a switch that automatically reroutes power to a second feed if the flow to the primary feed is interrupted.

Mrs. Kellems said she didn’t know whether the problems were related.

“For all we can tell right now, we’ve done tests and everything’s running the way it should,” she said. “We fixed the problems that were there. We have an on-site technician so that if this exact same problem were to occur again, we would hope that we would not have to go to the backup center, we would be able to repair it on site and make sure it kicked over to the generator. And if all else failed, like it did last time, that’s why we have a backup center.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the city has installed equipment to ensure that such a failure doesn’t occur again. “What we’ve done is to put in the right kind of equipment so that if we have these power issues they won’t interrupt the immediate initiation of the [redundant systems]. Then what you want to do is to routinely test that to make sure it’s going to happen.”

Mrs. Kellems and Mr. Williams were among city, state and federal government officials who attended a news conference yesterday to discuss progress made on regional preparedness issues, including coordination and communications, since a preparedness meeting a year ago.

The press conference was held in front of Engine Co. 16 in Northwest.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and former Virginia Lt. Gov. John H. Hager also attended the news conference.

Officials praised the Homeland Security Department’s creation of an office that coordinates preparedness responses in the region, including the staging of a dozen emergency drills to test the ability of first responders to deal with hazardous materials incidents.

Homeland Security officials also completed a vulnerability assessment, which outlined threats against the region’s infrastructure.

The power outage last week at the 2-year-old Public Safety Communications Center on McMillan Drive in Northwest forced dispatchers to work out of a backup site at police headquarters for a day.

While dispatchers could answer 911 calls and dispatch rescue vehicles, they couldn’t use the more sophisticated computer equipment needed to track the location of emergency vehicles and the status of emergency calls.

Police officers also couldn’t conduct on mobile computers record checks during traffic stops, and fire officials were delayed in locating and dispatching ambulances and fire engines to emergencies.

Pepco officials said there may have been a brief power surge that affected the primary power feed. But, they said, the failure of the secondary power feed and a diesel generator were a “city problem.”

The second power feed and the diesel generator should automatically kick in when power is lost.

“It was a problem with their equipment, an internal problem,” said Pepco spokesman David Morehead.

The outage also disrupted radio communications between firefighters for 15 to 20 minutes and forced dispatchers to spend much of the day tracking down emergency vehicles by telephone.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, wrote to Mr. Williams on Thursday demanding answers about the power failure.

In her letter, Mrs. Patterson questioned whether the District should divert resources from a new $100 million Unified Communications Center to ensure that a fully functional backup system is in place.

The UCC is expected to be completed next December.

“My question is this,” she wrote, “Do we have what we need today to provide emergency communications including back-up systems that can be immediately operational with no loss of emergency services?”

Michael Byrne, the regional director for the Department of Homeland Security, said the city’s handling of the power outage was a “testament to how far we’ve come in emergency services that the lack of vehicle-locating devices is what we’re worried about.”

“It’s about having the redundancy, having systems to fall back on so that people aren’t at risk. And D.C., I think, has demonstrated that they do have that capability,” Mr. Byrne said.

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