Derecho-related outages put 911 system under scrutiny
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While there is general agreement on the causes of the derecho-related 911 outages and that they need to be fixed, there is not as much consensus regarding what the FCC specifically should do to address the matter.
Some public-safety officials believe carriers should be required to provide backup-power supplies throughout commercial networks that are tested regularly, in addition to providing first-responder agencies with internal network-outage reporting that would give PSAPs better visibility into the cause of network outages and the restoration options.
But the carriers have a very different opinion, stating that the lessons learned from the derecho episode should be included in FCC “best practices” guidelines, not in the form of regulatory mandates. In an FCC filing, Verizon notes that Frontier Communications also had issues with backup power, but for different reasons, including generators being stolen. With this in mind, Verizon questioned the wisdom of blanket regulation in this area.
Meanwhile, AT&T told the FCC that it should be very careful if it wants to release information in the network outage reporting system (NORS) to public-safety entities. In addition to being commercially sensitive, the NORS information could create a national-security threat, as it could expose information that could be used to attack the nation’s critical communications infrastructure, AT&T stated in its filing.
“Thus, the commission should consider all reasonable steps to safeguard our nation’s critical information infrastructure and only grant access to NORS data when all parties are assured that the data is adequately protected,” according to the filing.
No one is certain what the FCC will do to address the derecho-related 911 outages, but the answer should be available soon, as Turetsky has said the agency plans to release an order on the matter before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a potential silver lining from the derecho saga is that federal policymakers — many of whom live in the impacted Virginia area — have become much more aware of the importance of 911 and its vulnerabilities, Forgety said. Many have noted that next-generation 911 — based on automatic IP-based routing around points of failure — could be part of the answer for a more resilient emergency-calling system in the future, but federal funding may be needed to make that initiative a reality in most of the country.
“One of the things that I would hope would come out of this ultimately is a much greater emphasis in our homeland-security planning and grant-making processes on including 911 as part of public-safety communications,” Forgety said. “Historically, the federal homeland-security enterprise has largely overlooked 911, and I think it’s time that changed.”
“The Times Square bombing plot was foiled, thanks to a 911 call. We believe that’s fairly typical — that 911 is the primary entry point for information in the public-safety domain. On a going-forward basis, it’s going to play an incredibly central role in the homeland-security enterprise and that it should be looked at that way by those responsible for improving our readiness and responsiveness.”