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Upgrades to Kanawha 911 are proving successful

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although Kanawha County's Metro 911 system has had its share of glitches in recent years, local residents have been spared massive outages that have plagued other parts of the country.

"We were planning for the expected unexpected from day one," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who has been pushing for state-of-the-art emergency services equipment since his first day in office.

The inability of thousands of residents in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut and other states to make 911 calls during June's derecho and superstorm Sandy earlier this fall revealed systemic problems with Verizon's telephone system, The Washington Post reported this month. Verizon routes 911 calls to 1,800 government dispatch centers in 12 states, according to the newspaper.

Despite systems that are designed to be failsafe and operate when power and other infrastructure is down, the Post uncovered problems with Verizon's emergency call systems that included struggles to maintain equipment, computer glitches and the failure of company officials to notice or heed automatic alarms.

Verizon set up the phone systems that serve the Kanawha County Metro 911 Center as well, but those lines were taken over by Frontier Communications when Frontier bought more than 600,000 telephone lines in West Virginia from Verizon in 2009. The changeover took place in July 2010.

Metro 911 Director Johnny Rutherford said about half a dozen isolated outages in different parts of the county have kept some residents from being able to call 911 over the past two years, but nothing like the massive outages in Virginia and other states.

Russell Emrick, deputy director in charge of technology for the 911 center, said local officials have been "very vocal" in making sure Frontier understands the importance of reliable 911 service in the county.

Unlike Verizon, which the Post found often didn't know about 911 outages until being told by local officials, "Frontier has been working with us and informing us when there's a problem," Emrick said. He said Frontier notifies 911 any time there's a telephone outage that involves more than 200 customers.

County officials got their first taste of potentially disastrous problems with the 911 center in August 2008, when a massive explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute so overloaded 911 lines that callers couldn't get through. Also during that disaster, emergency officials discovered that an automatic ring-down system that was supposed to call county residents in the event of an emergency didn't work.

Although Carper said any large disaster or emergency is likely to overload phone lines, that failure "woke me up."

County emergency planners thought they were ready for anything, but following the Bayer explosion they revamped response plans, corrected problems with the ring-down system and built even more redundancies into the 911 system. "We've gone through a lot of evolution," said Carper.

"It's improving every year," echoed Emrick.

The preparations apparently have paid off. In July, a lightning strike from one of the thunderstorms following the June 29 derecho made a direct hit on the 911 center, knocking out power to the facility. But 911 service was unaffected. Calls were almost immediately rerouted to a fully staffed alternate site in downtown Charleston.

Rutherford, who was elected Kanawha County sheriff last month and will take office in January, credits the foresight of the Kanawha County Commission and the commitment of local emergency officials in keeping the 911 center operating under the worst of conditions. "They're not reactive, they're proactive," he said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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