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Verizon says it’s not to blame for 911 system failure

Verizon officials say don’t blame them for Erie County’s 911 system failure Wednesday.

“This was not an outage related to the Verizon 911 network; it operated as designed,” said company spokesman Kevin Irland.

Instead, he said, the problem was rooted in the automated and unintended shutdown of Erie County’s own commercial and backup power sources at the Public Safety Campus.

Erie County’s 911 emergency system was down from about 3:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. Wednesday, triggered by a faulty air conditioning system that inexplicably shut down. That resulted in the overheating of circuits that power the emergency system. To prevent damage to the system, circuit breakers automatically cut power to the system.

The failure of the main 911 system was supposed to trigger a seamless backup system that should have rerouted calls to four police departments until a secondary location could be set up. All calls then should have been diverted there.

It didn’t work out that way.

Irland said Verizon’s 911 network and its fail-safe backup system depend on power from the main Public Safety Campus.

“All along, the 911 network worked as intended, but it’s obviously contingent on having power,” he said.

But that’s not how county officials understood it.

Dan Neaverth, county commissioner of Emergency Services, said Verizon had assured the county that in the case of a “catastrophic” event such as an earthquake, fire or terrorist attack that could destroy the downtown Public Safety Campus building on Elm Street, the county’s 911 backup system would still activate properly.

Erie County contracts with Verizon to provide all maintenance of the county’s emergency 911 system and its backup. Testing of the backup system occurs regularly. But the county has never tested the system by abruptly cutting power to it, which is what happened Wednesday.

“You’re not going to run your car into a building to see if the airbag works,” Neaverth said. “There’s really no way to do a catastrophic fail. But we were told even that would not be an issue.”

Irland said that total loss of power to the 911 system at the Public Safety Campus could be overcome manually, which is what occurred Wednesday, when it’s believed many callers abandoned the 911 system after their calls went unanswered after dozens of rings.

Ultimately, he said, the only way to prevent a repeat of Wednesday’s failure is for the county to set up a third emergency power source, separate from the primary and secondary power sources that the public safety building already has.

The County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee is expected to hold a hearing April 7 to look into the failure and examine solutions. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has also pledged a thorough analysis.