On June 29, the DC Metro area was hit with a sudden and powerful “derecho” storm, impacting nearly every person in Northern Virginia. Close to 500,000 people in the region lost power, Metro stations closed, and traffic lights at busy and dangerous intersections were out of service.
Some residents in Northern Virginia were without power for nearly a week. The power outages exacerbated the recovery due to a week-long heat wave that also hit the region.
I applaud the efforts of our local governments to provide cooling centers for those without power and the work of Dominion Power in Virginia to try and quickly restore electricity across the Commonwealth. However, one of the most troubling impacts of the “derecho” storm was the failure of our 9-1-1 communication system, operated by Verizon in Northern Virginia. 2.3 million people were affected, as reports of failed phone service began the day after the storm, lasting for several days.
The minutes following a natural disaster are precisely the times when we most need our emergency systems to work.
It is even more worrying that the entire region’s emergency 9-1-1 system could be so easily disrupted after we have made significant efforts to improve response capabilities following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This storm exposed a weakness in our response system, and now that we know it exists, we must fix it.
Fortunately the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency charged with overseeing our telecommunications infrastructure, has already proposed a solution. In 2007, after Hurricane Katrina, the FCC proposed a regulation that would require phone companies to provide at least eight hours of backup power for all cell phone towers. This regulation was never put into place; having been struck down not on the substance of the regulation itself, but due to a technical problem with the public comment period
Last week I joined Northern Virginia Congressmen Frank Wolf and Gerry Connolly in writing the FCC calling for a serious, timely reassessment of this proposal and the consideration of additional reforms.
This regulation would have undoubtedly helped Virginians following the “derecho” storm. Further, a change like this would strengthen our nation’s telecommunications infrastructure, preventing similar dangerous situations in communities across the country.
In the event of an emergency situation, whether it be a natural disaster or man-made threat, the public should be confident that they can get through to 9-1-1 operators. I look forward to meeting with representatives from the FCC on this issue and to finding a solution to ensure that this 9-1-1 system failure never happens again.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.