- All that's left of the house that caught fire Wednesday night in the 800 block of Lanark Way in Silver Spring. (Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Forman)
UPDATE 6:40 p.m. If you're wondering what being on hold with 911 sounds like, David Rotenstein of Historian4Hire brings us this video from Wednesday night. He says he spent 30 minutes trying to report a fire in his yard caused by a downed electrical wire. Many of his neighbors also tried. Rotenstein lives about 1/2-mile away from the Four Corners house that caused so many residents to call 911 and then get busy signals.
UPDATE 5:19 p.m. It seems that those Four Corners residents who received busy signals when calling 911 last night didn't get through because they were using cell phones, according to Montgomery County Police.
Police are now investigating the disruption to its Emergency Communications Center (ECC). The communications center received 134 percent more calls yesterday than it normally does during a 24-hour period. The police department has issued press release about the the busy 911 signals:
Just before 11:00 last night, the Montgomery County Police ECC was notified by both Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C. call centers that there were problems with calls being received from wireless phones. Montgomery County supervisors immediately contacted Verizon and the problem was fixed in approximately 15 minutes. At this stage of the investigation it is believed that trunk lines for wireless phones were affected gradually over a period of time. Because of the high number of calls being received in the ECC call center, there was no indication to call takers and supervisors that there was any disruption to service from wireless phones. Calls from landline phones were not affected.
Verizon had pledged to alert the Montgomery County Police ECC whenever there was an outage of their service to our 911 center. That did not happen last night. Police are currently investigating and coordinating with Verizon to determine why the disruption occurred, why the call center was not notified, and how to best ensure that those circumstances do not occur again.
This is still quite troubling considering that many of the neighbors called from cell phones because their power had gone out.
UPDATE 2:39 p.m. We now have some information from Montgomery County on 911 calls Wednesday evening.
Many calls come through the county's communications' center, which is manned by both police and fire department personnel, and police spokeswoman Lucille Baur says that it's not unusual for residents to call 911 and get a busy signal during major emergencies.
“Certainly there was a high call volume last night during the snow emergency,” says Baur. “When we have tornadoes, or heavy winds, the call volume sky rockets. And people also like to call in and report when a traffic light is down, or when they see an emergency. Not only do we have people calling in for assistance, but also people calling in to provide information on areas that need attention.”
Baur reminds us that “there are finite number of [phone] lines, and that’s everywhere throughout the country.”
This isn't the first time that 911 busy signals in the county have come into the spotlight. When Carl Henn was struck by lightning during a July 25, 2010 storm, numerous people tried calling 911 but also received busy signals. He died two days later, although his family and friends don't blame the busy signals for his death.
ORIGINAL POST 12:49 p.m: Robyn Pare knows that the transformers in her neighborhood tend to blow out often, so she was keeping a close eye on them as she shoveled her sidewalk around 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday night.
Sure enough, transformers blew out. Three explosions in total, neighbors say. And then a house across the street in the 800 block of Lanark Way caught on fire. Pare, like other neighbors, instinctively called 911. And she, like the group of seven to 10 neighbors assembled outside, were all getting busy signals.
“We were shocked. Completely shocked. I didn’t know 911 could ever have a busy signal,” she says. “It felt like we were on our own and that there was just not help to be had.”
Pare eventually called a neighbor whose son was a volunteer firefighter. That neighbor called a fire house directly. Firefighters did arrive on the scene, but right now we don't know whether that direct phone call or a 911 call caused the response.
In the end, the firefighters were able to put out the blaze, but the resident, an elderly woman, was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, according to an automated message on Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service's press information hotline.
Michelle Forman lives just down the street from where the house fire took place, and her husband, Mike, was one of the neighbors who called 911 from their cell phones.
“He’s out there, and everyone’s shouting to call 911. And everybody’s doing it on their cell phones, everyone is calling 911 and getting a busy signal. And since everyone’s power is off, we only had cell phones to use,” says Michelle Forman.
She even took to Twitter, frantically asking for help:
"It's a very scary situation when you have a house engulfed in flames and no one can reach 911," says Forman.
It certainly is. Perhaps the call center was inundated with calls? MCFRS did run nearly 800 calls between 3 p.m. and midnight, Wednesday. We are still waiting to hear back from the county to get an explanation of why so many people were receiving busy signals when calling 911, and we will certainly update this post once we have it.