SNOW HILL – A major telephone outage in the Snow Hill area left numerous Verizon customers —including the board of education and Worcester County Emergency Services — without landline service for roughly seven hours Monday.
The county was forced to redirect 911 calls to Ocean City while residents without cell phones were told to go to Snow Hill’s police or fire station if they needed emergency assistance.
“It’s very rare that a situation takes down an entire phone exchange,” said James Hamilton, Worcester County’s deputy director of emergency services.
According to Hamilton, just before 9 a.m. on Monday his department was advised by Verizon, the company from which they lease the 911 computer equipment, that there was an issue. He said within minutes his staff realized that both the primary and backup 911 lines were down.
“We began to do testing with some basic Snow Hill phone numbers and found out they were down as well,” he said.
To address the 911 issue, his department was forced to route all 911 calls to Ocean City. He said that may have amounted to a small delay — measured in seconds — in response time. He explained that normally, the operators who answer 911 calls send pertinent information electronically to a second person who can then dispatch help while the operator is still on the phone with the caller. On Monday, the operator had to gather the pertinent information and, rather than sending it simultaneously via computer, had to share it via radio.
“There may have been a small delay,” Hamilton said.
Knowing that not everyone affected by the outage had cell phones, Hamilton’s department advised anyone in need of emergency assistance to go to the police or fire station.
Telephone service was restored to the area just after 4 p.m. Verizon spokesman John O’Malley did not have an estimate of the number of customers affected by the outage when contacted this week.
“The outage was caused by a failure in one of our fiber optic cables,” he said in an email. “We were able to isolate the issue and get the cable repaired by late afternoon.”
Although roughly 40,000 Verizon workers throughout the region have been on strike since April, fighting outsourcing and long distant assignments, O’Malley said it had no impact on Monday’s outage.
“No, the strike didn’t have an impact on repair time,” he said. “Once we identified the issue, we set to work making the repair and restoring service.”
Following Monday’s unusual situation, Hamilton says Worcester County Emergency Services will review the day’s events to see if there are any ways they can improve operations in the future.
“We believe it went fairly smoothly,” he said.
Hamilton said there wasn’t anything the county could have done to prevent the situation, as it wasn’t a problem with the county’s equipment but rather a piece of infrastructure owned by a private company. Nevertheless, he said that the county was in the process of replacing its 911 equipment with newer technology that will enable the call center to use phone lines from other areas when need be.