FCC Hears Conflicting Views About Rules for MLTS’ 911 Obligations

The FCC is receiving conflicting advice about whether it should require enterprise communications systems (ECS) to handle 911 calls the same way as most other telecom systems by routing emergency call to the nearest public safety answering point and including information about where the call originated. Public safety organizations are urging the Commission to take steps to ensure that ECS, which are used by businesses, hotels, universities, and other entities, provide all of the functions callers expect when dialing 911.

Carriers, business groups, and equipment makers, on the other hand, cautioned that the FCC should proceed carefully given the complexity of ECS and its various configurations, the expense involved for ECS operators to activate emergency calling functions, and the Commission’s uncertain jurisdiction over the issue.

“Put simply, the Commission does not have authority to regulate ECS operators nor does it have subject matter expertise in workplace safety issues to adopt specific 911 transmission requirements for enterprise systems,” the Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee, which represents large enterprises, said in PS docket 17-239.

The FCC issued a notice of inquiry (NOI) in the docket in late September to explore the issue of ECS emergency calling (TR Daily, Sept. 26).  The Commission has moved in recent years to extend 911 obligations to new types of wireless and wireline telecom systems, and ECS, users of which sometimes must dial extra digits for an outside line, remains an area of concern.

But the Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee advised the FCC to let the private sector address ECS emergency calling.  “We urge the Commission not to interfere with the wide discretion currently enjoyed by companies to develop solutions that best meet the safety of their employees.  It is the most prudent and legally supportable approach,” the committee said.

AT&T Services, Inc., offered similar advice.  “In its laudable effort to improve ECS support for 911 calling, the Commission should be mindful to first ‘do no harm’ by not impinging on enterprise owners’ discretion to adopt customized 911 calling solutions that enhance public safety,” the company said.

“Enterprise owners are uniquely situated to address many of the issues raised in the NOI, and it is this constituency that must be engaged to address any public safety deficiencies, particularly with respect to its role in dynamically updating location information,” AT&T commented.  “Moreover, as it has in the past, the Commission should continue to defer to states’ leading role on ECS emergency calling.”

But the two state utility commissions that commented in the proceeding all but pleaded with the FCC to adopt rules requiring ECS to provide full 911 functionality.  The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) noted that its efforts to address the issue in California in 2010 failed because it lacked legal authority from the state or federal government to adopt rules.

“The CPUC undertook its own effort to improve public safety in California by improving access to E911 by multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) and private branch exchange (PBX) systems,” the commission said.  “During that proceeding, the California public safety answering points (PSAPs) and other stakeholders uniformly confirmed that the existing voluntary approach, without the legislative mandate, is not working.”

Likewise, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission indicated that the lack of rules for ECS emergency calls was a public danger.  “ECS should be required to allow direct access to 911 without dialing an additional digit, to provide accurate and specific location information, and to route to an appropriate PSAP.  These requirements should be federally mandated in order to achieve nationwide consistency,” the Colorado commission said.

“Voluntary action is best applied in the development of best practices and standards, but without mandatory requirements it will be impossible to know that all ECS providers and operators are complying with the practices and standards that will bring about the ubiquity and consistency of service,” it added.

Public safety organizations that commented in the proceeding said it was time for the FCC to act by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking so that people who need emergency help can simply dial 911, regardless of the type of phone system being used. “Customers who call 911 from traditional landlines and cellular telephones generally expect — rightly — that their calls will be completed, that they will be routed to the jurisdictionally-appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP), and that the telecommunicator who answers will have access to timely and accurate location information for the call,” the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) said.

“For millions of office and factory workers, dormitory residents and hotel guests, and, increasingly, unsuspecting mobile device users, however, these basic guarantees are not reliably available,” NENA said.  “It is high time that the Commission took steps to create a comprehensive regulatory regime that places all originating services providers on an equal footing while providing all consumers with a uniform set of 911 service expectations.”

“Direct access must be required of every ECS everywhere,” the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) told the Commission.  “Access must be direct, i.e., it must not require the caller to use a prefix, such as ‘8’ or ‘9’ before dialing the digits 911.”

“It is not reasonable to expect people who travel for business or pleasure to know every state’s rules for access to 911 from these types of systems,” NASNA added.  “Even when dialing directions are provided by an ECS operator, it is unlikely that a caller would take note of them in the heat of an emergency.”

NASNA’s comments were echoed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, Inc. (APCO).  “Direct access to 911 is fundamental.  A member of the public cannot even reach 911 if she does not appreciate or understand the need to dial a separate digit first.  This must and can be fixed as soon as possible for all enterprises regardless of size or type,” the association said.

Several commenters noted that the House and Senate had adopted bills, as had some state legislatures, known as Kari’s Law, which would make it possible to dial 911 directly from any ECS.  The laws are named for Kari Dunn, who was stabbed to death by her estranged husband in 2013 in a Texas motel room as her daughter attempted to call for help but couldn’t reach 911 because she didn’t dial “9” first.

The House and Senate versions of the bill still must be reconciled, however, and several of the state bills contain exceptions and waivers that exempt some enterprises and allow others to seek more time to comply. — Tom Leithauser, tom.leithauser@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily