FCC official: 911 outages from derecho storms ‘unacceptable’
MINNEAPOLIS — Carrier network and public-safety answering point (PSAP) outages that prevented millions of citizens in the eastern United States from accessing 911 systems for extended periods of time in the aftermath of June derecho storms is "simply unacceptable," an FCC bureau chief said yesterday during a session at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) show.
In the aftermath of the derecho, millions of citizens were unable to utilize the 911 system — for several days, in some cases — the FCC initiated a proceeding to determine the cause of the outages and has conducted its own inquiry regarding the situation, said David Turetsky, chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau. Agency officials hope to use the input from the proceeding to establish solutions that will prevent similar 911 outages in the future.
"Our goal is simple: It is to use this information to make people safer," Turetsky said. "We want to enhance public safety by identifying and applying the lessons learned in order to help make communications more reliable and resilient and to reduce the chances that 911 outages of this type will be repeated.
"Here is the bottom line: We should not — and do not — find it acceptable for 911 to be available reliably under normal circumstances where a range of emergencies take place but not available when a natural disaster occurs. That's simply unacceptable. Our networks need to be just as reliable or resilient when there is an enhanced need for emergency assistance as when there is not."
Turetsky said the FCC's inquiry already has included discussions with six carriers and 25 PSAPs. Agency officials are looking at all aspects of the outages, from the inability for citizen to call 911 because a commercial network was down to the inability for some PSAPs to remain functioning in the aftermath of the storms, he said.
Some of the technical aspects of 911 in the review include the design of the emergency-calling system and the backup solutions — including backup power supplies — that need to exist when problems arise, Turetsky said.
"There shouldn't be a central office that has all of the 911 circuits going through it — without diversity — for a single area," he said. "A central office going out shouldn't wipe out 911 service for 1 million or 2 million people. It's a question we're investigating, at least in this situation.
"If [911 systems are] not suitable designed, and they're not suitably monitored, and there isn't an appropriate kind of redundancy and other considerations that go into design and operation, we're going to continue to have problems."
While the initial comment phase in the proceeding ended last Friday, the FCC will accept reply comments on the topic through Sept. 4, Turetsky said. After the comment period is complete, the agency will issue a report on the subject, he said.
"This is something I know I care passionately about, that our staff cares passionately about. It's something that the people we've talked with so far take very, very seriously," Turetsky said. "This is not something that's going to drag on forever. We're going to get a report out this fall, and we're going to figure out what needs to be done and what the next steps are, whatever they may be."