911 Outages During Summer Derechos Get Carriers In Hot Water
January 11, 2013

FCC Scolds Carriers For 911 Outages During Summer Derechos

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Telecom companies such as Verizon did not abide by their own rules concerning backup power and system design, which resulted in a failure of 911 communications that affected some 2 million people in the aftermath of powerful storms that hit several states last summer, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Thursday.

“These failures are unacceptable and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911,” Genachowski said in a statement according to the New York Times.

The chairman, whose remarks accompanied an agency report released Thursday about the issue, said he would seek new rules to strengthen 911 services.

“The FCC will soon launch a rulemaking to improve the reliability of existing 911 networks and prevent failures like those outlined in today´s report. We will also accelerate the Commission´s Next Generation 911 agenda,” he said, referring to the FCC´s plan to use the Internet to approve the availability and reliability of 911 communications.

“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 did not announce a date for agency action.

The FCC said 911 emergency calls were disrupted in parts of six eastern states following high-wind storms known as derechos that battered the area on June 29, knocking out commercial power.

These storms tend to occur unexpectedly, giving little, if any, advance opportunity to prepare.

Last summer´s powerful storm killed 22 people, and left millions of homes without power.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, nearly 1,900 calls to 911 were not routed to emergency operators in a 29-hour period after backup generators failed at a Verizon facility, according to FCC´s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau report.

Other areas that suffered 911 disruptions in the aftermath of the storms included West Virginia, which is served by Frontier Communications Corp., and Ohio, where Frontier, AT&T Inc. and CenturyLink Inc. provide service, the FCC said.

The agency said it would consider issuing more stringent backup-power requirements for telecom central offices, additional tests of 911 circuits, and better designs that eliminate a single-point-of-failure that could cripple wide areas of service.

“Too many of us were left without communications and could not reach 911,” FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworce told Bloomberg News.

“We have a duty to find out what went wrong and to apply those lessons to make our networks more resilient.”

The FCC report tracked a series of failures after generators failed to work properly in two Verizon offices in northern Virginia.  The failure cut 911 services in four jurisdictions of the DC suburban area.

According to a Fairfax County report submitted to the FCC in August, county officials were left with leaving posts on Twitter the morning of June 30 to inform its 1.1 million residents to “go to the nearest police or fire station to report emergencies.”

Meanwhile, seventeen public-safety call centers serving more than 2 million people across three states failed completely, while some 911 services, such as location identification, were lost at 77 call centers serving 3.6 million residents in six states, the FCC noted in its report.

Verizon said it has rectified the cause of the generator problems in northern Virginia.

“We have acted diligently and decisively to resolve the operational and communications issues that arose,” Verizon Chief Technology Officer Anthony Melone told Bloomberg.

“Our performance during Hurricane Sandy in late October demonstrated the substantial progress we´ve made.”

Indeed, last summer´s heavy storms caused greater chaos on emergency calls than Hurricane Sandy, which left most 911 services intact, the FCC said.

However, the hurricane wrought havoc with the area´s wireless services, knocking out service in parts of 10 states and the District of Columbia, triggering new concerns about the resiliency of mobile networks during disasters.

A preliminary report by the Virginia State Corporation Commission said Verizon´s generators in northern Virginia did not start automatically upon power failure, and may not have been properly maintained, Bloomberg reported.

While such “unprecedented” 911 system failures should never have occurred, they did not cause catastrophic consequences for anybody in northern Virginia, wrote the authors of the report.

Kathleen Abernathy, Executive Vice President for Frontier, said the company has strengthened its network, and will “carefully study” the FCC´s report.

Separately, major wireless carriers are working to ensure text-to-911 services are available during emergencies. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile agreed last month to launch these services nationwide by May 15, 2014.

The FCC´s full report, entitled “Impact of the June 2012 Derecho on Communications Networks and Services,” can be viewed here.