FCC Planning Rule to Strengthen 911 Networks Against Major Disasters

The impetus for the rulemaking action is a report by FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau on the impact of the June 2012 derecho, a major windstorm that affected 77 call centers serving more than 3.6 million people in several states.

The Federal Communications Commission's chairman, Julius Genachowski, on Jan. 10 announced plans to launch a rulemaking to strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the nation's 911 communications networks during major disasters.

"Americans must be able to reach 911, especially in times of natural disasters," Genachowski said. "Today's report on the June 2012 derecho finds that a number of preventable system failures caused major disruptions to communications providers' networks connecting to 911 call centers during and shortly after the storm. As a result, 911 was partially or completely unavailable to millions of Americans -- in some instances, for several days.

"These failures are unacceptable," he continued, "and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911. The FCC will soon launch a rulemaking to improve the reliability of existing 911 networks and prevent failures like those outlined in today's report. We will also accelerate the commission's Next Generation (NG) 911 agenda.

"Here's the bottom line: We can't prevent disasters from happening, but we can work relentlessly to make sure Americans can connect with emergency responders when they need to most."

The June 2012 derecho was a major windstorm that caused 77 call centers serving more than 3.6 million people in several states to lose some degree of connectivity. There were isolated breakdowns in Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Indiana; systemic failures in northern Virginia and West Virginia; and 911 systems and services were partially or completely down, sometimes for several days, according to the report, which was prepared by FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. It says 17 call centers in three states lost service completely, affecting the ability of more than 2 million people to reach 911.

Several FCC commissioners issued their own statements about the report, including Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: "This past July I asked that the Commission investigate the communications failures spanning from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest in the wake of the Derecho. Too many of us were left without communications and could not reach 9-1-1. That is simply unacceptable. We have a duty to find out what went wrong and to apply those lessons to make our networks more resilient," her statement says. "The report released today by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau details the serious service breakdowns both during and after the storm that the staff uncovered in our networks. Tragically, many of these were avoidable interruptions involving a lack of back-up power to central offices or failures of the service providers' monitoring systems. As a result of the staff's efforts, some of these specific problems have already been corrected. But our work is not done. We must stay vigilant and make sure that what happened resulting from the Derecho does not happen in other parts of the country. Carriers should test their networks and ensure that plans are in place in case of an emergency. It is time for an honest accounting of the resiliency of our nation's network infrastructure in the wireless and digital age. Today's report is a good first step."

There is little to no advance warning of a derecho, so this event gave the commission an unvarnished snapshot of 911 readiness nationwide. The report says most of the disruptions would have been avoided if communications network providers that route calls to 911 call centers had fully implemented industry best practices and available industry guidance. It also recommends that the commission consider requiring communications providers to maintain robust, adequate backup power at their central offices.

The commission already has planned field hearings, partly in response to Hurricane Sandy, on the challenges during natural disasters, and some information gathered for the derecho report relates to those same issues. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International announced its full support for the report's finding and the upcoming rulemaking. APCO President Terry Hall said, "today's report confirms that adherence to existing best practices on the part of the commercial carriers would ordinarily have prevented much of the outages that unfortunately occurred. APCO appreciates the hard work of the FCC staff and the steps that service providers have already taken to improve 911 network resiliency. The report's recommendations, which are consistent with APCO's publicly filed comments, reflect common sense steps that all stakeholders can take to ensure that 911 networks are as reliable as possible, including in the face of large-scale emergencies." He said APCO, the world's largest organization of public safety communications professionals, will continue to work with the commission "on ways to further ensure the resiliency of 911 communications, which might call for more specific requirements on the part of 911 service providers."

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