Generator failure blamed for 911 service disruption in D.C.

911 staff at work inside D.C.'s Unified Communications Center. (Photo courtesy:

(WJLA) - When you need help in a hurry, your 911 call comes here to the District’s Unified Communication Center. But on Tuesday, the building went dark as it suffered what was officially described as a “catastrophic communications failure.”

311 calls went unanswered, and worse yet, an agency spokesman told ABC7 News that 911 emergency calls were degraded, resulting in longer-than-expected wait times.

Akelia Fye lives in D.C. with her infant son Dominic, and said:
seconds do matter, that's just very bad, they need to do something about that, its just horrible

While an official investigation is ongoing, the Unified Communication Center noticed irregular power interruptions and switched to its backup generator – a system that is supposed to last for days but made it only 13 hours before shutting down.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened – a similar outage affected 911 calls back in 2012.

Last April, the agency’s director told the D.C. Council that she had budgeted $7 million over two years to install an underground commercial power feed because “power incidents over the last two years and best practices research lead us to believe that this exclusion was no in the best interest of the safety of our citizens and first-responders."

“That is of grave concern to all of us -- even though there are back-up system in case of fails, it should not fail,” said D.C. council member Tommy Wells.

But when the power went out, it wasn't just 911 and 311 that were affected; D.C. Police radio was severely impacted for about five minutes before a backup system kicked on, though officers we talked to today reported radio issues for up to 40 minutes.

It’s a failure that reportedly could have put everyone involved in jeopardy, with very bad results.

In a statement from spokesperson Pedro Ribeiro with D.C. Mayor Gray's office, he writes:

"Obviously, anytime the system goes down it’s a cause for concern. While the disruption was minimal and our additional backup systems functioned properly, we are reviewing the incident to ensure that the proper fixes are put in place."

{ }