FCC faults carriers for 9-1-1 service outages during storm

Many of the widespread outages and 9-1-1 service interruptions that occurred in late June 2012 when the derecho storm struck the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states were preventable, according to a Jan. 10 staff report from the Federal Communications Commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

The FCC report documents the serious service breakdowns both during and after the storm, including a lack of back-up power to central offices and failures of the service providers' monitoring systems. As a result, the derecho left 3.6 million people unable to contact 9-1-1 for varying periods of time due to carrier network problems--a fact that FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn calls "unacceptable" and requiring the Commission to "do everything in its power to promote network reliability" in the future.

In its report, the FCC bureau noted that a significant number of 9-1-1 systems and services were partially or completely down for several days after the derecho. In all, 77 9-1-1 call centers serving six states lost some degree of connectivity, including vital information on the location of 9-1-1 calls.

Seventeen of the 9-1-1 call centers, mostly in northern Virginia and West Virginia, lost service completely, leaving more than 2 million residents unable to reach emergency services for varying periods of time. In most cases, according to the report, the service disruptions could have been avoided if the network providers that route calls to 9-1-1 call centers had fully implemented industry best practices and available industry guidance.

"We must stay vigilant and make sure that what happened resulting from the Derecho does not happen in other parts of the country," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in a written statement. "Carriers should test their networks and ensure that plans are in place in case of an emergency."

However, as Clyburn points out, communications network reliability issues were again a widespread problem during the recent Superstorm Sandy. Sandy's wake left millions of Americans on the East Coast without electricity due to the storm, which in turn deprived residents in these hard-hit areas of mobile communications and the ability to contact emergency responders.

Nevertheless, in a written statement, Verizon's Chief Technology Officer Anthony Melone said the carrier has "acted diligently and decisively to resolve the operational and communications issues that arose after the June 2012 derecho, and our performance during Hurricane Sandy in late October demonstrated the substantial progress we've made."

Among the recommendations made by the FCC bureau to improve public safety communications were that the Commission consider requiring communications providers to maintain robust and reliable backup power at their central offices. The report also recommended that the FCC consider requiring providers to ensure that communications providers' monitoring systems are reliable and resilient, and avoid cases where a single failure in a monitoring system causes a provider to lose visibility into a substantial part of its network.

In addition, the bureau recommended that the Commission consider requiring communications providers that route calls to 9-1-1 call centers to regularly audit their 9-1-1 circuits and the links that transmit location information for 9-1-1 calls. Melone said Verizon will review the FCC's report and recommendations and will continue to collaborate with the FCC, the public safety community, and other local, state and federal government officials to "take every step to ensure that 9-1-1 is available when citizens need it."

To learn more:
- read the FCC bureau's report