WASHINGTON - There was a period of time during the weekend’s 911 system outage when police and fire communications with dispatch were disrupted, said D.C. Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The outage began around 11:30 p.m. Saturday and ended just after 1 a.m. Sunday, resulting in callers being unable to get through to 911 or being put on indefinite holds.
Officials said a contractor was trying to find the switch to turn off a water leak alarm that was sounding in the Office of Unified Communications when he accidentally shut off power to the 911 dispatch center.
Officials said few have access to the room and everyone must be trained before being allowed in. The contractor is no longer allowed into city buildings.
"Frankly, we are looking to see if it should only be District employees that have access to that room," said Mayor Muriel Bowser. "That is my kind of first blush opinion. So we have to see if that is even work that is appropriate for a contractor."
Bowser said the city is continuing to investigate why, after the main dispatch center lost power, 911 calls were not automatically rerouted to the backup center.
"We are very obviously concerned about any systems that are not working," Bowser said. "We have investigated the root cause of this outage and we are investigating the cause of the equipment failure. I have ordered our teams to do a top-to-bottom review of the technology problems, and we are actually going to have our chief technology officer lead that effort."
The system's backup is designed to kick in when there is an external problem or when something outside the Office of Unified Communications building were to cause the system to go down.
Because this was an internal power shut down, those backups needed to be manually turned on. As a result, it took several minutes for engineers to realize that main power button had been switched off and then time was needed for the entire communication system to reboot.
Police and fire sources told FOX 5 that they felt very nervous during this period of time where they could not reach communications and were out of touch with dispatch. They could, however, talk to one another in the field.
"There was a system issue in the radios because of the power outage. That doesn't mean the radios did not work. Radios still worked. Officers could still talk to officers on the street. Firemen could still talk to firemen out there on the street," said Chris Geldart, D.C. Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management when he appeared on FOX 5 Morning News on Tuesday.
"We did have an issue with talking from this facility to the field for about 12 minutes, but that was fixed very rapidly," he continued. "We didn't lose radio coverage out in the field. We just lost -- we had an issue -- about 12 minutes of having full radio cover from here to all the units in the field."
Geldart said the department is working on a fix to ensure backups are automatically in place following an internal power shut down.
D.C.'s backup 911 call center will also be staffed around the clock while the outage is investigated.
This is not the only 911 problem we have had in the D.C. region this summer. Last month, Montgomery County's system went down due to a technical glitch. Also, earlier this month, Sprint was having issues with service in the D.C. region, preventing customers from calling out, including to 911.
Emergency responders recommend saving the phone numbers for your local police and fire stations, and knowing the locations of those buildings. Also, connect with your local government, police and fire on social media. During D.C.'s outage, District officials used Twitter and Facebook to alert the public and provide an alternative emergency phone number.