A large portion of the 911 service outages affecting millions of people during the aftermath of the derecho windstorms last June were "avoidable," if wireline service providers had followed best practices established by the industry, according to an FCC report released today.

Starting as a thunderstorm cell in Iowa on the morning of June 29, this summer's derecho — straight-line winds often reaching hurricane force — evolved into one of the most destructive weather events in the United States, cutting an 800-mile path from Illinois to the mid-Atlantic states, including the national capital region around Washington, D.C.

While U.S. citizens wrestled with fatalities, injuries and loss of property as a result of the storm, 3.6 million people were impacted by 911 service outages or disruptions, according to the FCC report, which is based on an inquiry conducted by the agency's public-safety and homeland-security bureau.

RELATED: Derecho-related outages put 911 system under scrutiny

"Americans must be able to reach 911, especially in times of natural disasters," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "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 and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911."

Specifically, the FCC will launch a rulemaking designed to make the existing 911 system more reliable and accelerate the commission's push for next-generation 911, Genachowski said. NG-911 will leverage Internet Protocol (IP) network architecture that is designed to be more reliable by rerouting traffic automatically when failures in a particular area occur, as happened in the aftermath of the derecho.

"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," Genachowski said.

Overall, 77 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) lost at least some level of service, including information associated with the location of emergency callers, according to the report. Even worse, 17 of those PSAPs — mostly in northern Virginia and West Virginia, where systemic failures occurred — lost 911 service "completely, leaving more than 2 million residents unable to reach emergency services for varying periods of time," according to the FCC report.

In its report, the public-safety and homeland-security bureau recommended that FCC commissioners consider requiring communications providers to adhere to the following:

  • Maintain adequate central office backup power — The FCC should consider requiring communications providers to maintain robust and reliable backup power at their central offices, supported by appropriate testing, maintenance, and records procedures.
  • Have reliable network monitoring systems — The FCC should consider requiring providers to take steps 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.
  • Conduct periodic audits of 911 circuits — The FCC should consider requiring communications providers that route calls to 911 call centers to regularly audit their 911 circuits and the links that transmit location information for 911 calls.
  • Notify 911 call centers of problems — The FCC should consider providing more specific guidance, such as the level of information that should be included by service providers in their notifications to 911 call centers.

Terry Hall, president for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), applauded the FCC report.

"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." Hall said in a statement. "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."

In fact, just the process of the FCC conducting its inquiry has resulted in some carriers taking actions to improve their 911-related procedures, Hall said.

"I have seen some positive changes myself — in my own PSAP — with the carriers notifying us, following up and having an on-call list. So, prior to this even being announced, I think they've made some positive changes," Hall said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "They've realized that they need to increase communications with the PSAPs and their personnel, and it looks like they're working in the direction of some early mitigation for what [the FCC] could do with policies, procedures and such."

While the derecho inquiry was being conducted, Superstorm Sandy hit states along the east coast. Information associated with that event will be addressed in the FCC's upcoming field hearings related to Superstorm Sandy.