In June, the Washington Metro area was hit with a sudden and powerful derecho storm. Many Northern Virginians were without power and thus air conditioning for nearly a week during a sweltering heat wave.
Most frightening was the failure of numerous 9-1-1 call centers across several states. All told, the derecho knocked out 77 call centers, impacting 9-1-1 emergency service for 3.6 million people – two million of whom live in Northern Virginia.
Just in Fairfax County alone, 1,900 calls were not received. The minutes following a natural disaster are precisely the times when we most need our emergency communications systems to work. This vulnerability of our emergency response system is dangerous, unacceptable, and avoidable.
Following the storm, I joined with Representatives Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf to ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to look into what happened. And just this month, the FCC released its study, the “Impact of the June 2012 Derecho on Communications Networks and Services,” that reported the widespread system flaws and included appropriate recommendations to prevent this situation from occurring again.
The report recommendations will ensure service providers are accountable for the soundness of their systems, including maintaining backup power, periodic audits and network monitoring, and a notification system when failures occur.
Specifically, the report recommended telephone service providers be required to maintain “robust and reliable” backup power to keep 9-1-1 call centers running in case of power loss. This is similar to a proposed recommendation from 2007 after Hurricane Katrina that would require phone companies to provide at least eight hours of backup power for all cell phone towers. The 2007 regulation was never put into place; having been struck down not on the substance of the regulation itself, but due to a technical problem with the public comment period.
The report also recommended providers conduct regular audits of their 9-1-1 systems to locate flaws within the providers’ circuits. Currently, there is no uniform requirement that networks be routinely checked. In partnership with system audits, the report suggests providers maintain strong network monitoring systems that can withstand power outages. Lastly, the FCC is charged with improving guidelines on the speed and content information providers should share with 9-1-1 call centers.
The derecho storm was rare, but its impact was immediate and widespread. In the event of an emergency situation, whether it be a natural disaster or man-made threat, the public should be confident that they can get through to 9-1-1 operators. As the FCC begins its rulemaking process, I intend to pursue a legislative fix that includes these recommendations above.