Service providers and public safety officials today discussed the potential benefits of a “two-way” national database that they could use to contact each other about service outages affecting 911 calls, as well as the best ways to handle outreach to the public about such outages.
The discussions took place during an FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau’s workshop on improving situational awareness during 911 outages. The workshop followed an investigation that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked the bureau to undertake in the wake of a nationwide 911 outage that affected AT&T, Inc.’s voice-over-LTE network in March. The bureau reported in May that the five-hour outage could have been prevented if the carrier were following network reliability best practices (TR Daily, May 18).
During remarks at the beginning of the workshop, Chairman Pai said, “This exchange comes at a critical time, as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma illustrate. Last week, I went to Texas to inspect the damage caused by Harvey and meet those engaged in recovery efforts. I heard first-hand from 911 call-takers and emergency communications personnel who worked tirelessly to serve their communities, even while their own families and homes were threatened.”
He added, “When Texans’ ability to call 911 became strained, many turned to social media. Some public safety entities used social media to tell residents to call 911 only for life-threatening emergencies and to use 311 for other purposes. These efforts yielded many success stories. For example, on social media, emergency responders asked residents who owned boats and high-water vehicles to contact fire officials to help with rescues in flooded neighborhoods. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted during the disaster that a woman was going into labor and shared the address. An hour later, he updated his followers that the woman had been taken away in an ambulance. I personally heard about other cases in which online platforms helped those in need.”
However, the Chairman said that “our experience with Hurricane Harvey also underscores the importance of not confusing social media as a substitute for calling 911. During the disaster, for example, some public safety entities warned that social media was not the best means of communicating emergency rescue requests. All of this points to the need for best practices about how to communicate effectively both about 911 outages and during 911 outages.”
Jessica Rosenworcel, one month into her encore stint as an FCC Commissioner, delivered unscheduled remarks, joking that she was “crashing” the workshop. She reiterated her recent call (TR Daily, Sept. 5) for an FCC report in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma on “what worked, what didn’t, and where we can improve our communications infrastructure.”
She added, “Once we know the facts, we need a full plan for fixing the communications vulnerabilities we are finding, including what you are discussing today—how to deal with the impact on 911. This report also will need to include a framework for rebuilding so that the communities with damaged communications facilities are not permanently relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide. Because one thing is for sure—Mother Nature’s wrath is sure to visit us again. It is incumbent on us to learn from these disasters to improve emergency response and infrastructure recovery.”
Commissioner Rosenworcel further called for the FCC “to rethink its priorities. We need to revisit the objective laid out in the very first sentence of the Communications Act: to ‘make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States . . . wire and radio communications service . . . for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property.’ And there is no better day to recommit to this course than today. It is, after all, the anniversary of 9/11.”
Both Chairman Pai and Commissioner Rosenworcel noted that today is the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York.
During the first panel of the workshop, which focused on communications among 911 communications service providers, originating-call service providers, and public safety answering points (PSAPs), several participants emphasized that such communications cannot be “one-size-fits-all,” given the variation in the sizes of PSAP and communications service providers, and the fact that some local PSAPs operate independently while others are under centralized state control.
John Haynes, deputy director of the Chester County (Pa.) Emergency Services, said that notifications to PSAPs should be “actionable,” that is, “the supervisor on duty has to be aware that they have to do something. That’s our responsibility.” Mr. Haynes also emphasized that getting notifications is important so that supervisors can alert call-takers if, for example, they won’t be receiving ALI (automatic location information) for calls, thus alleviating the need for each of the call-takers to alert the supervisor when they notice ALI is missing. “That’s important information for us to get,” he said.
Andy Gormley, co-chair of the Network Reliability Steering Committee at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, noted that carriers sometimes “don’t understand the full scope of the outage right away,” so that initial notifications to PSAPs may not have all the desired information.
However, David Mulholland, administrator of the Arlington County (Va.) Emergency Communications Center, emphasized that lack of specific information can leave PSAPs uncertain as to whether they are affected by an outage notification. “How can we make sure when these notifications go out that it’s surgical, so we can read it and understand whether it affects us without doing test phone calls?” he said. With regard to the idea that notifications might go to a centralized state office, Mr. Mulholland said, “We need dual notification. We have to reduce layers. Layers of notification result in time deficiencies, and we can’t have that,” because minutes are a matter of life and death in PSAP operations.
Evelyn Bailey, executive director of the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), said that during that AT&T outage earlier this year, “people were notified who weren’t affected at all.” She added that it “doesn’t seem like it should be rocket science” to get the notifications to those that are affected by an outage.
Mary Boyd, vice president–regulatory, policy and external affairs at West Safety Services, said that “PSAPs want more information, but sometimes we don’t have it.” Still, the notification must be made because “we’re driven by that two-hour update [requirement in the FCC’s rules]. It’s time to rethink. Are we really doing good works by notifying PSAPs [while they are trying to respond to disasters]?”
Mr. Gormley of the NSRC said that in the past several months, industry and public safety officials have been working on a framework to address how the rules governing notifications “need to evolve.” He emphasized that the work has just begun, adding that participants hope to have an update in January on “where we are with the framework.”
Jessie Ward, director–industry and policy analysis at NTCA, said that some of her organization’s members contact the PSAPs they serve weekly to ask them to update contact information.
Mr. Gormley, however, noted that if all originating call providers and 911 call providers did that, PSAPs could be overwhelmed trying to respond. “Do your guys want to be hit 20 different times” in a week with such requests, he asked.
Mr. Haynes aid, “It would be great if there were a nationalized database.”
Mr. Gormley said, “We need a national database that works both ways,” with both PSAP and communications service provider contact information. However, Ms. Boyd said that West Safety Services has “teams that call the PSAPs” and that it reaches out to PSAPs for a variety of reasons, each of which might require a different contact at the PSAPs. “We’re going to need to have our own database,” she said, adding, “It’s easy to say we have a national database. … It’s very tough to keep it updated.”
Ms. Bailey suggested an “intermediary step to a national database,” with states and their regional and local PSAPs deciding how they want notification to work in that state.
Mr. Haynes said that PSAPs don’t want information from communications providers that might not be accurate that “they’re giving just because it’s them checking off a box” under FCC rules.
Mr. Haynes noted that “currently notifications are one-way,” in that there’s no provisions for PSAPs to acknowledge receipt of the notification. However, implementing such a mechanism should come with “the caveat … that the reply can’t adversely impact the work that PSAPs are doing.”
During a second panel on the best practices for communicating 911 outage information to the public, there was much discussion of the use of social media, as well as text to 911.
However, Trey Forgety, director–government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, pointed out the texting does not work if 911 is out and the public is directed to use the local 10-digit phone number for the PSAP. Also, when voice service to 911 goes down, sometimes text to 911 does, too.
He added that notifying consumers ahead of possible 911 outages that there is a 10-digit number they can call isn’t a good solution “in the wireless world,” since the phone won’t always be within the jurisdiction of the same PSAP.
Stacey Hartman, director–public policy at CenturyLink, said, “We’re deferring to our PSAPs on outreach to public about outages.”
Karima Holmes, director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Unified Communications, said that if there is a “fix,” such as turning a phone off and on, “I would want the message to come from the carrier.” Similarly, she said, if the problem is only with specific models of phones, the message should come from the carrier. —Lynn Stanton, email@example.com