- January 10, 2013 11:57am EST
Widespread outages and disruptions to 911 services following June’s devastating “derecho” wind storm could have been avoided if telephone companies had sufficient backup power and followed other industry best practices, according to a Federal Communications Commission report released Thursday.
The fast-moving derecho storm that developed on June 29 caused service disruptions to 77 separate 911 call centers serving more than 3.6 million people in six states, according to the report [PDF], which was issued by FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The disruptions ranged from “isolated breakdowns” in Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Indiana to “systematic failures” in Virginia and West Virginia.
Seventeen affected 911 call centers, mostly located throughout northern Virginia and West Virginia, completely lost service, leaving more than 2 million residents unable to reach emergency services for several days, in some instances.
“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.”
In the wake of the incident, Genachowski is planning to propose a new set of rules for phone companies in an effort to improve the reliability of the 911 system during major disasters. The changes would require these firms to maintain adequate central office backup power, have reliable network monitoring systems, conduct periodic audits of 911 circuits, and notify 911 call centers of any problems they discover.
“These failures are unacceptable and the FCC will do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911,” Genachowski said. “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.”
The derecho storm killed 22 people and left millions of homes without power. Derechos, like earthquakes and tornadoes, typically occur unexpectedly, giving little-to-no advance notice or opportunity to prepare.
The FCC said some of the information gathered during its inquiry of the derecho outages relate to “broader network reliability and resiliency issues” raised by Supersorm Sandy. The agency will address these issues during upcoming hearings.
Meanwhile, by mid-2014, most wireless customers around the country will be able to send a text message to 911 during an emergency. The nation’s four largest wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — in December agreed to roll out text-to-911 services nationwide by May 15, 2014.
For more from Angela, follow her on Twitter @amoscaritolo.
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