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Lawmakers, Regulators Examine Vulnerabilities With Vermont's E-911 System

Shrewsbury resident Jonathan Gibson testifies at the Vermont Statehouse while others are seated behind him.
John Dillon
Shrewsbury resident Jonathan Gibson testifies about a power failure in town that also brought down phone service, so people could not call 911.

When the power goes out, can you still call 911 in case of an emergency? As people in Shrewsbury discovered recently, the answer is: maybe not. Now a legislative committee and state utility regulators are looking into this and other issues with 911 services.

A power outage last November hit the town of Shrewsbury hard. Some residents in the Rutland County town were in the dark for three days — and when the lights went out, their phone service also failed. 

Shrewsbury resident Jonathan Gibson took the witness chair in the Senate Finance Committee this week to describe the problem.

“Our experience in Shrewsbury over the last three or four months has exposed a dangerous hole in the digital highway that needs to be recognized and repaired,” he said.

Gibson said several hundred people in town lost their phone service during the power outage.

While no one was actually harmed by the failure to connect with 911, Gibson said extended outages could easily lead to fires, falls or other accidents.

“We hope they don’t happen, [but] the household emergencies may occur. ... That’s exactly when 911 is most needed, as you know,” he said.

The reason the phone service went down in Shrewsbury has to do with modern telecommunications technology. Many people in town get their phone service over a fiber-optic line provided by Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Company.

Unlike the traditional copper wire that served your parents' phone, many calls now are delivered by a technology known as “voice over internet protocol.” Old-fashioned copper lines carry an electric current so the phone works when the power is gone — but digital lines do not. The modems that handle the signal inside the home include batteries. When the batteries eventually run out, the phone dies.

Gibson said a survey of residents showed 59% have generators and another 25% have cell service. The rest are at risk, he said.

“You can see that there is a lot of exposure during times when there's a power outage and the battery backup systems have expired, run down, and you cannot make a phone call,” Gibson said.

The Federal Communications Commission requires the backup batteries to last for 24 hours, but Gibson said they failed long before that.

"Our experience in Shrewsbury over the last three or four months has exposed a dangerous hole in the digital highway that needs to be recognized and repaired." — Jonathan Gibson, Shrewsbury resident

The issue has caught the attention of lawmakers and state utility regulators. The Senate Finance Committee heard about the Shrewsbury problem this week. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities, has also opened two cases on 911 problems.

Clay Purvis, the telecommunications director at the Vermont Department of Public Service, said the two issues are related but involve different technical challenges.

“Both proceedings deal with issues relating to the ability of callers to reach 911 during a certain type of outage,” he said.

The outage in the Shrewsbury happened because the power was down for three days. The other issue has to do with outages in the landline phone network itself. Purvis explained the scenario:

“A fiber line connecting two central offices breaks, and callers can call within their exchange, but they can’t call outside the exchange so they can’t reach 911,” he said. “And the danger there comes in that consumers don’t realize that there is a telephone outage, because they still have dial tone.”

The Vermont E-911 Board, which oversees the enhanced 911 system in Vermont, said phone companies have reported eight of these failures over the last two years.

Now both the E-911 board and the Public Utility Commission want to know more. At the board's request, the PUC opened an investigation into the issue. Along with the E-911 board, it’s asking how widespread the problem is, what can be done to address it and how much it would cost.

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