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Congressmen Call on FCC to Prevent Future 911 Failures

Moran, Connolly, Wolf want the FCC to reconsider a regulation concerning backup power that the commission proposed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Northern Virginia's three congressmen called on the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday to take action that will

In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, U.S. Reps. Jim Moran, Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf asked that the commission dust off a post-Hurricane Katrina regulation that would have required all telecommunications companies to provide at least eight hours of backup power for all cell phone towers.

The regulation was subsequently struck down on a technicality related to how the commission handled public comments, according to a news release.

“In the event of an emergency situation, whether it be a natural disaster or man-made threat, the public needs confidence that they can get through to 911 operators,” Moran stated in the release. “This storm exposed a weakness in our response system, and now that we know it exists, we must fix it.”

The failure included , Arlington and  along with Falls Church, and .

An estimated 2.3 million people in Northern Virginia lost access to critical 911 services for up to four days following the late-June derecho, a powerful wind storm, according to The Washington Post.

Verizon, which operates the emergency systems, has blamed a malfunctioning "trunk line" in Arlington.

Verizon officials Wednesday said that one of two diesel-powered generators failed in the hours after the storm, exacerbating the problem — though a spokesman later called that only "one factor," according to the Post.

The loss of the system came at a terrible time, in the middle a days-long heat wave that saw dangerously high temperatures — particularly for the hundreds of thousands without power.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova to investigate the failure of the 911 systems. The Prince William  for a similar investigation. 

Verizon is conducting its own internal investigation.

Some time after the regulations proposed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina failed, FCC staff developed the National Broadband Plan, which included its own set of recommendations — including those on backup power to critical communications infrastructure.

In April 2011, the FCC opened a notice of inquiry regarding the "reliability and continuity of communications networks…" and other topics that rolled together all previous recommendations. (See paragraphs 23 through 26 here.)

In it, the commission asks for comments on a long list of items — including what types of communications services should be prioritized, whether areas prone to natural disasters should be given more resources, and whether advances in backup power technology, including the use of solar power, will overtake more traditional batteries and generators — and, if so, what resources should be put forth to facilitate those advancements.

The commission also notes that telecommunications companies cited local zoning and environmental regulations that affect cell towers as impediments to implementing "certain" backup technologies.

The notice of inquiry remains open — that is, the FCC is still receiving comments — and will continue to be open until the commission determines it has enough information to proceed. Then, either commission staff will formulate recommendations or the matter will be handed off to an advisory committee.

FCC representatives would not comment Thursday on the congressmen's request. They sent the following statement, attributed to the commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau chief, David S. Turetsky:

"We plan to meet with a number of carriers in the coming weeks to explore the cause of service issues to 911 service centers, overall lessons learned, and other issues to ensure that the public received the best communications service possible and is able to communicate effectively and in a way that safeguards public safety in these situations."

The "eight-hour" regulation cited by Moran, Connolly and Wolf might not be good enough — some Northern Virginia residents were unable to access the 911 system for up to four days.

Still, the congressmen expect a response from the FCC.

"I'm optimistic about this. I think we'll have a good resolution," said Anne Hughes, a Moran spokeswoman. "Because this can't happen again."

Joseph M. July 13, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Cell phone companies use public airwaves and as such are properly regulated. Even if not, ask yourself what is better for the common good: 1) unregulated cell phone companies free not to provide 8 hour backup or 2) requiring certain public safety meaures to be implemented at a time when 35% of American households rely solely on cell phones. What good is 911 if a significant number of people can't call it? Do you really want to run down the block(s) to an emergency phone in order to say that your child is choking or your house is on fire. In a different article's comment, T Ailshire, you said that people should keep a car charger in case worse came to worse. But what happens for the millions of people without a car or when the system goes down like it did in Del Ray and even with charged cell phone, no one can get through?
Adam Eldert July 13, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Verizon is the Northern Virginia region's 911 carrier. The Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are provided service by Verizon to include an inbound cellular answering point that allows for the triangulation of the caller by using GPS sattelites, which is then fed back through the cell towers. This is an important feature, because it allows first responders to use the latitude and longitude coordinates to locate the incident or caller. While Verizon is a publicly traded company and they are in the business to make money, the necessity for public safety outweighs the money making aspect. To say that telecomm companies can side step the public safety for their own financial gain is very short sighted since many public safety agencies utilize wireless devices in the performance of their duties - cell phones, cellular data for incident dispatch and management, etc. The fact is, the 911 system is a requirement to have in jurisdictions specifically to address public safety concerns - police, fire, and EMS. If this system fails, getting assistance ot those in need is significantly impacted and is potentially life threatening. Additionally, those of you who have any kind of telephones, landline, cellular, etc, pay an excise tax that goes to the state and is distributed specifically for 911 services in local jurisdictions.
Sandra July 13, 2012 at 10:29 PM
For those of you saying that we should have public landlines available, let me tell you that just having a landline doesn't do any good (public or not) if the telecommunications company's service is down. In our case, we had landline, internet, and cell services provided by Verizon and everything went down. Our landline service was down for 4 days, so even if there was a public landline phone, chances are that it would not have worked either. I fail to understand how the failure of one generator could cause such a serious outage for so many days. You'd think that they could just have replaced a bad generator much more quickly than that.
diana bork July 14, 2012 at 02:07 AM
Sandra, you are right on. Those taking care of elderly relatives in their home are dependent on the landlines. Some elderly patients are dependent on machines run by electricity (and, yes, if they can afford it they purchase a generator; however, many cannot afford it). So when the electricity goes out and the patient is suffering from heat or need for machines run by electricity, option one is cellphone and hope it is charged; option 2 is cellphone fully charged but whoops, no tower; option three is to pull out the landline and dial 9ll, but there was no 9ll. Last option: get in the car and drive around fallen trees to the fire department where all units have been dispatched to deal with fires, health emergencies, car accidents and fallen trees. And, no, some patients cannot be driven directly to the hospital, they need an EMT team to move them. We were fortunate that so few people died in this last storm.
Autoexec.bat July 14, 2012 at 05:07 PM
That settles it then. Everyone should get a satellite phone pre-programmed with the 10-digit number for their local PSAP and hope we never encounter serious sunspots, heavy rain or high winds. Problem solved.

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