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FCC Seeks Comment on Effects of Derecho Storm on Communications

Thursday, July 19, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Chris Nussman
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On June 29, 2012, a fast-moving weather storm called a derecho brought a wave of destruction across wide swaths of the United States, beginning in the Midwest and continuing through the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions of the country. Millions of Americans lost electrical power during the storm for periods ranging from a few hours to over a week in the middle of a heat wave, and the storm caused billions of dollars in physical damage. The storm had a significant adverse effect on communications services generally and 9-1-1 facilities particularly. From isolated breakdowns in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, to systemic failures in northern Virginia and West Virginia, it appears that a significant number of 9-1-1 systems and services were partially or completely down for several days.

The impact of the storm in northern Virginia was particularly severe, notably in Fairfax County, parts of Prince William County, Manassas Park and Manassas, where over 1 million people faced the possibility of not being able to call 9-1-1 successfully. In those jurisdictions, media reports and local government officials indicate that public safety answering points (PSAPs), which process calls to 9-1-1 facilities, failed, as did backup systems. Multiple access technologies appear to have been affected by the outages, including traditional networks, broadband networks, and wireless networks.

The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB or Bureau) of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) responded immediately, closely coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and constantly communicating with service providers and other stakeholders from the time the storm hit and throughout the period impacts were felt by the public. At noon on Saturday, June 30, the Commission granted an emergency special temporary authorization allowing a Missouri power company crew to use certain frequencies to assist in the restoration of electric power within the Ohio disaster area.

Utilizing the Commission’s Operations Center, which is staffed 24 hours a day/7 days a week, and supplementing it with direct outreach and pre-established reporting protocols, the Commission obtained important information on communications outages related to 9-1-1 centers, broadcast stations, and public safety communications systems that it shared with its Federal partners (e.g., FEMA). Vital information on outages also came through the Commission’s mandatory Network Outage Reporting System (NORS) and voluntary Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS). At 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 30, the Commission activated DIRS, targeting selected providers with systems in the disaster area, in this case the District of Columbia and certain counties in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Through DIRS, the Commission received regular updates on the status of wireline, wireless, and 9-1-1 communications outages and restoration efforts. As company maintenance crews largely restored communications services in certain areas, the Commission de-activated DIRS for those areas on July 3, 2012 and completely deactivated it on July 4, 2012. The Commission also issued on its website and distributed through social media a consumer tip sheet for the public about communicating after the derecho, while the effects of the storm were still being felt.

Immediately after communications and 9-1-1 services were restored, the Bureau began an inquiry focused on learning all of the facts and circumstances of the various outages, including the causes and, importantly, ways to make the public safer and avoid future outages. The Bureau began an ongoing series of meetings with stakeholders, such as communications service providers, public safety officials, and others, and continues to seek and obtain relevant information. The Bureau is assessing and evaluating the storm-related information received through NORS or DIRS, and still coming in through NORS. The Bureau is also coordinating with state and local governments, which are responsible for establishing and operating 9-1-1 facilities, providing first responder services, and regulating certain relevant communications services.

By this Public Notice, the Commission and the Bureau further expand the ongoing inquiry. The Public Notice broadens the inquiry in two ways, by expanding those who may contribute relevant information to include the public, and focusing not only on issues directly surrounding the derecho and what happened during and after it, but also on other experiences associated with natural disasters throughout the nation that involve outages or are otherwise related to the resiliency and reliability of communications services and networks of all kinds that are used to seek, process or obtain emergency assistance. Especially in the face of events that lead more people than usual to need emergency help, they must be able to connect to get it. It is vital to seek focused comments broadly on what happened during and after this or other storms, and what can be done to better address these issues going forward.

Congress has given the Commission a particular responsibility under the Communications Act to ensure communications networks of all types "promot[e] safety of life and property.” Central to this important responsibility is ensuring the reliability, resiliency and availability of communications networks in times of emergency, including and especially during and immediately after a natural disaster such as a derecho. Recognizing this, last year the Commission initiated a proceeding on the reliability and continuity of communications networks, including broadband technologies. Information received in connection with this Public Notice will add important information that will inform the Commission’s action in this proceeding.
Click here for more information and to read the full Public Notice