FCC commissioners today expressed their intent to take action soon in an effort to prevent 911 outages, such as one in April that resulted in more than 6,000 emergency calls being unanswered in seven states during a six-hour period.

To conclude its regular open meeting, commissioners heard a presentation detailing the findings of an investigation into a 911 outage for 81 PSAPs throughout the state of Washington, in half of the state of Minnesota, and in parts of five other states. The cause of massive outage was a software glitch created by the insertion of an “arbitrary” cap on the number of 911 calls that could be handled at a data center in Englewood, Colo., as well as questionable actions by the vendor—Intrado, although the company was not named during the FCC presentation—after the outage started.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described the outage report as “terrifying.”

“We’re pro- new technology, but we’re even more pro- public safety,” Wheeler said during the meeting, which was webcast. “The presentation makes it clear that the transition to all-IP networks is going to create a series of challenges such as this.

“An outage as the result of a hurricane or flooding is one thing. An outage as the result of bad code is completely something else.”

David Simpson, chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau, said the multistate outage was “avoidable” and that it is just one of four “sunny day” outages affecting multiple states this year that were not impacted by issues such as a natural disaster.

Simpson described 911 reliability as a “unique imperative,” noting the importance of the so-called “Golden Hour” for treating serious injuries as an example.

“Simply put, the call for help pegs the Golden Hour,” Simpson said during the meeting. “If your call for help is delayed to the point where responders can’t get the patient to trauma care in an hour, your prior planning is for naught. Each of these outages exceeded the Golden Hour standard.

“This is a call to action. Together, we must change the trajectory for 911 readiness.”

Wheeler said FCC commissioners are willing to take action on the matter as soon as the staff can generate a proposal.

“We have to do something about this, and we have to do something about this quickly,” Wheeler said. “You [Simpson] have told us that this is a call to action. You have told us we must respond. We are charging you with a quick and effective response proposal to come back to this panel.

“We appreciate you identifying the issues, and we’re standing by … Let me reiterate: We’re standing by for a quick response.”

Other FCC commissioners expressed a similar sense of urgency, noting the potential dangers associated with 911 outages and the fortunate fact that the multistate outage did not result in a fatality. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the report a “wakeup call,” while Commissioner Ajit Pai described the outages “absolutely unacceptable.” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the multistate outage time was lengthened because of a “totally inadequate” alarm system.

“Now that we know what went wrong, we need to do something about it,” Rosenworcel said during the meeting. “What is apparent to me is that, as we transition our emergency service systems to next-generation 911, essential elements of our traditional 911 topology are changing. While a more centralized, IP-based system can mean tremendous functionality, it also can mean new vulnerabilities.

“The kind of software glitch we had here is just an early demonstration case. Before a worse one results—or a malicious one, as part of a cyberattack—we need to get our house in order. We need to fix this … for every one of us who has taught, and has been taught, that 911 is the one number you need in an emergency.”

Wheeler said that vendors providing 911 services should be held to high standards of reliability.

“There is a special responsibility that people who provide these services—and increasingly they are provided on an outsourced basis—have to make sure that they live up to the expectations that we all have for them,” Wheeler said. “I, for one, was very disappointed to see some of the replies come in on this in which some of the providers said, ‘Well, you know, stuff happens.’ That’s not an unacceptable answer.”