FCC Field Office Closure Proposal Gets Cool Reception at NPSTC Meeting

The FCC proposal to reduce from two dozen to eight the number of field offices received a cool reception today at a meeting of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council in Washington.

William Davenport, deputy chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, discussed at length why he said FCC officials believe consolidation of the field offices will actually result in better, not worse, responses to complaints about interference to public safety systems, as some public safety officials fear. But several public safety veterans at today’s meeting expressed skepticism.

David Buchanan, who chairs NPSTC’s Spectrum Management Committee and who retired as a network services supervisor in San Bernardino, Calif., complained that public safety officials had not heard of the field office consolidation plan directly but instead through other channels.

“You’re a service organization,” he told Mr. Davenport. “It’s better to come and explain things to people.”

Mr. Buchanan said he knows of public safety officials have stopped calling the FCC about interference complaints because it takes field office agents two weeks to show up.  “Let us know when we can tell people, ‘Start calling the FCC again and they will help you,’” he added.

“There has definitely been over the last few years a disconnect in the field between the offices and the public safety agencies that work with them,” said Don Root, vice chair of NPSTC’s Interoperability Committee and assistant communications systems manager for the San Diego-Imperial County Regional Communications System.

He said some field office staffers have been “engaged” with local agencies while others have not been. He also complained that in the 800 megahertz rebanding, some agencies did not feel like the FCC supported them and instead told them to “come to us as a last resort.”

“I think that’s why you’re getting the pushback,” Mr. Root said. “In many ways, you have done it to yourself.”

National Emergency Number Association Chief Executive Officer Brian Fontes, a former FCC chief of staff whose organization sits on NPSTC’s governing board, noted that FCC reorganizations are not new. He expressed concern that consolidation of FCC field offices could make it more difficult for the agency to address interference complaints just as it is encouraging more spectrum sharing.

A key to enabling greater sharing between federal agencies and wireless carriers “is the ability to remedy interference in real-time, and by real time we’re talking minutes and hours, not weeks or days,” he added.

Mr. Fontes said that FCC officials must recognize that a “paper plan oftentimes doesn’t quite 100% match reality.”

Tom Sorley, who chairs NPSTC’s Technology and Broadband Committee and is deputy director-Radio Communication Services for the city of Houston’s Information Technology Department, urged Mr. Davenport to put “your money where your mouth is, so to speak” and make promised investments in the field office operation, “maybe even in parallel with all of the other things you are doing.”

Mr. Davenport thanked the public safety officials for their remarks and said he had not heard some of the complaints before.

In response to Mr. Buchanan’s comment about agencies that have given up calling the FCC with complaints, Mr. Davenport said many small agencies “don’t know how to contact us … so we obviously have a communication problem.” He said that in response to a request by the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC plans to make available contact information for field office personnel.

As to Mr. Root’s remarks, Mr. Davenport said, “This is the first time I am hearing these kinds of stories – candidly.” He added that he can use concerns such as those to make the case for additional resources in certain areas.

In response to Mr. Sorley’s plea for the FCC to show early on that it will follow through with investments in certain field office operations, Mr. Davenport said the plan calls for additional spending on training, equipment, and databases.

Complaints about the field office consolidation proposal from outside stakeholders and some agency employees have focused senior FCC officials on the plan, he stressed. “There’s no way that people are going to be able to back off from the commitments that we’re making in terms of resources,” Mr. Davenport added.

Mr. Davenport, echoing points made by other FCC officials in recent weeks, said the field office consolidation is necessary to modernize the agency’s operations at a time when annual budgets have been stagnant.

“The current model of the field is broken,” he said. “It was built around a regulatory model that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Modern enforcement is about responding to wireless interference complaints, not conducting random inspections of broadcast facilities.”

He said the proposal would prioritize the resolution of RF interference complaints, including those involving public safety. But he said offices spend only about 40% of their time on those matters, saying multiple field offices receive fewer than one RF interference complaint per employee per week.

The plan calls for the FCC to bolster resources at its remaining offices in New York City, Columbia, Md., Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and he said it plans to preposition equipment in other key places. The Commission plans to use a “Tiger Team” from its Columbia, Md., lab to help field offices and to handle complaints in the mid-Atlantic region, he said.

Based on the plan, he said the FCC “should be able to respond within four to six hours for 85% of all part 90 matters, 90% of all public safety matters, and 97% of all RF complaints we received last fiscal year.”

Mr. Davenport said that the FCC also plans to set new metrics for responding to complaints, in addition to ensuring that it responds to public safety complaints within 24 hours.

“Under our plan, our field agents will spend more time in the field instead of the office,” he said. “Our performance will not decline.”

Mr. Davenport acknowledged that the proposal, which would reduce the current field office staff of 108 by about half, has generated “vigorous discussion” among Commissioners’ offices, which are considering a draft order to implement the proposed changes.

If the order is approved, the FCC would consult with Capitol Hill to repurpose funds to work with union officials on buyouts and early retirements, he said. The FCC has to give the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) 30 days’ notice, followed by a 120-day negotiation period. If no agreement is reached, mediation and, if necessary, arbitration would follow. He said officials hope the plan can take effect this fall.

NTEU leaders have said they oppose consolidation of the FCC field offices. “We have major problems with the course that the FCC is taking,” NTEU National President Colleen Kelley said in a March news release. “With new technology and policy decisions which expand the use of the spectrum, there is an increased need for field office operations support.”

Ms. Kelley also complained that the FCC did not brief the union before the consolidation proposal surfaced. “We believe FCC is obligated to seek such front-end cooperation under a recent presidential executive order directing agency managers to seek pre-decisional input from employee unions before taking major steps,” she said.

Earlier at today’s NPSTC meeting, Harlin McEwen, chairman of the First Responder Network Authority’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) said that for the first time, a portion of the PSAC will be open to the public. He said that is a positive development.

The PSAC is scheduled to meet June 1 in San Diego in conjunction with meetings of the FirstNet board and the annual stakeholder meeting of the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program. The PSAC plans to meet from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in private before opening its meeting from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Mr. McEwen said.

A FirstNet spokesman said the open portion of the PSAC meeting will be live streamed on the Internet. He declined to comment when asked why the rest of the meeting would be closed to the public.

Also today, Andy Thiessen, vice chair of NPSTC’s Technology and Broadband Committee, briefed the attendees on LTE 3GPP standards development related to public safety capabilities. He noted that 3GPP approved in March Release 12 of the LTE standard, which includes direct mode capabilities sought by public safety. The standard also includes basic group communications provisions to provide better spectrum use, such as in urban areas, he said.

The direct mode and group communications capabilities will be further developed in Release 13, which is expected to be approved by the end of this year, Mr. Thiessen said. Mission-critical push-to-talk provisions are also expected to be in Release 13, he said. As for Release 14, mission-critical video is expected to be included, he said.

In response to a question from Mr. Fontes, Mr. Thiessen also said that U.S. wireless carriers have brought to 3GPP information concerning the FCC’s approval of new 911 location-accuracy rules (TRDaily, Jan. 29). The carriers have committed to working on standards development related to those rules.

Charles Werner, chair of the National Information Sharing Consortium and outgoing chief of the Charlottesville, Va., Fire Department, discussed the consortium’s efforts to improve the sharing of information that public safety agencies will need during incidents and said it plans to issue a document outlining key information elements. He sought input from NPSTC and its member organizations.

Jim Downes, chair of the Federal Partnership for Interoperable Communications, stressed the importance of encrypted interoperable communications. He described efforts to draft a white paper recommending best practices for security, including encryption.- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com