- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The District’s 911 communications center lost power yesterday, forcing radio dispatchers to use telephones to locate emergency vehicles throughout much of the afternoon.

Police officers were unable to conduct record checks from mobile computers during traffic stops, and fire officials were delayed in locating and dispatching ambulances and fire engines to emergencies. City officials said they had no information about specific calls that were affected by the power outage.

As of last night, there was no word on what caused the power failure. The Metropolitan Police Department, the D.C. fire department, the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer and Potomac Electric Power Co. were conducting an investigation into whether the problem was caused by an internal failure in the communications center or an external power-supply problem.

The problem started about 8:30 a.m., when the lights went out at the city’s 2-year-old Public Safety Communications Center on McMillan Drive NW.

“We had two power feeds, a primary and a secondary,” said Fire Chief Adrian Thompson. “When the primary went down, the secondary didn’t kick in.”

The center is never supposed to lose power. Police immediately began staffing the backup call center at police headquarters, which formerly served as the city’s 911 call center.

Soon after the lights went out, the computer system had what fire officials called a “catastrophic failure.”

Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said calls were diverted to the backup center with the “flip of a switch” and that disruptions in 911 response were minimal.

The backup site has the ability to answer 911 calls and dispatch rescue vehicles but lacks the more sophisticated computer equipment needed to track the location of emergency vehicles and the status of emergency calls.

Calls to the city’s 311 non-emergency system were not routed to the backup center and went unanswered for much of the day.

Chief Thompson said one consequence of the power failure was that radio communications between firefighters were disrupted for 15 to 20 minutes and that dispatchers had to track emergency vehicles by telephone.

“We have Nextel phones and hard lines to coordinate all service,” he said.

Power was restored to the primary call center about 3:30 p.m., but officials last night were taking only 311 calls there to bring the system back up slowly. As of last night, 911 calls were still being answered at the backup center.

Several firefighters and medics said they observed problems with the system as early as Monday afternoon, when computers that ambulance drivers use to relay the status of their calls failed and they were instructed to notify dispatchers by phone.

Chief Thompson and Mrs. Kellems said they were not aware of those problems and could not say whether there was any connection to yesterday’s power failure.

The failure was the second major problem at the public safety communications center. In June 2001, a lightning strike knocked out two of the four antennae the system relies on and caused firefighter and EMS radios to fail for 10 hours throughout much of the city.

During that incident, firefighters were unable to communicate during a response to a bomb scare at the U.S. Treasury building. The threat turned out to be unfounded.


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