PhotoEveryone tries to be on their best behavior in Washington, hoping Congress won't get annoyed and crush them. Too bad no one told Sprint about that before it joined Southwest and Delta airlines in staging a spectacular display of poor redundancy.

It all started Tuesday when the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department issued a warning that some cell phone calls weren't getting through to its 9-1-1 center. Then it narrowed it down a bit more, pinpointing Sprint as the carrier that was having problems.

As the day wore on, the problem spread to D.C. and on into Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the tristate peninsula known locally as the Eastern Shore. Sprint chimed in and said that some landline calls were also going nowhere.

What could it have been?

Like the Southwest and Delta failures, the Sprint debacle started small and then quickly got out of hand when backups didn't work as expected and small failures cascaded into big ones.

Sprint said a fire in D.C. caused problems at Sprint's data center in Reston, Va. How a fire across the street from Sprint's switch in D.C. caused issues 20 miles away wasn't quite clear, but apparently, emergency Sprint generators in D.C. didn't kick in as they were supposed to and, as so often happens, one thing led to another.

Things were apparently back on track Wednesday morning. As far as is known, no one was harmed because of the outage, but it was another reminder that the systems consumers count on to be there when they need them don't always come through. 

PhotoAnd by the way, emergency responders for years have insisted on referring to the nationwide emergency number as "9-1-1" -- with dashes -- on the theory that if we call it "nine-eleven," panicked callers may look in vain for the "11" button on their keypad. 

Could be, but in the age of texting, do we really expect anyone to text "9," then "-," then "1," then "-" and so on?

Just asking.

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