FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today stressed the importance of developing best practices to aid in improved preparedness and response to disasters, and he also called on stakeholders to work toward deploying next-generation 911 (NG-911), which he noted can help ensure more resilient and redundant networks. He also cited last weekend’s false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii in saying that emergency communications systems “shouldn’t be designed so that a single point of failure leads to a catastrophic result.”
Mr. Pai delivered opening remarks this afternoon at a Capitol Hill event organized by the NG911 Institute. He said the FCC wants to work with the NG911 Institute on emergency preparedness and response best practices and NG-911 deployment.
“We need to learn from our experiences over the last several months and develop best practices so that we’re better prepared and more effective in responding to future disasters,” Mr. Pai said. “In December, our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau issued a Public Notice seeking input on the public and private sectors’ preparation for and response to the 2017 hurricane season [TR Daily, Dec. 7, 2017]. We want to know what worked and where we can improve service availability and restoration. And we want to hear from all stakeholders, including the public safety community; state, local, territorial, and tribal officials; industry; consumer groups; and federal response partners.”
Mr. Pai added that “911 needs to be at the core of this conversation. We’ve seen that major disasters place tremendous strain on the 911 system and make it harder for incoming calls to get through. When I visited Houston, for example, officials there told me that at Harvey’s peak, they received more than 3,100 calls to 911 per hour — 10 times the normal volume. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) serving St. Croix was knocked out of service by Hurricane Maria. And of course, in many areas where PSAPs were able to receive calls, power outages cut off residents’ access to telephone service — and with it their ability to call 911. This was a big problem in Puerto Rico.
So going forward, we have to harness expertise from the private sector and all levels of government to improve the resiliency of the 911 system, and address surges in call volumes.”
Mr. Pai also said that transitioning to “NG911 is important for a whole host of reasons. One that’s sometimes overlooked is that NG911 networks can support greater resiliency, redundancy, and reliability than legacy 911 networks. To cite just one example, by linking PSAPs to a state or regional Emergency Services IP Network, or ESINet, NG911 can enable 911 calls to be rerouted when a local PSAP loses power or gets a surge of 911 calls.”
Mr. Pai also noted that 2018 has already been busy on the emergency response front with wildfires and mudslides in California and last week’s false alert in Hawaii (TR Daily, Jan. 16). “To be sure, the false alert isn’t specifically a 911 issue. But it did drive home in a dramatic way how critical it is for emergency communications systems to operate correctly,” he said. “The false alert sent in Hawaii was completely unacceptable and avoidable, and the FCC has already launched an investigation. We want to find out exactly what happened and how to make sure that it never happens again. Based on the information we’ve collected so far, it appears that the incident was caused both by human error and by the state of Hawaii not having reasonable safeguards in place to prevent that human error from leading to the transmission of a false alert. And this leads to a lesson that is critical for emergency communications systems of all kinds, including 911. They shouldn’t be designed so that a single point of failure leads to a catastrophic result. Nothing and no one is perfect. Our emergency communications systems need to be designed to take account of these realities by having appropriate safeguards and redundancies.”
During a panel discussion after Mr. Pai’s remarks, public safety officials from Houston, Miami, and the U.S. Virgin Islands discussed the challenges they faced in keeping PSAPs running after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
They detailed the hurdles they faced due to surging incoming call levels, power outages, downed cell sites and wireline phone networks, and often the lack of location information with calls. They also stressed the benefits of social media during and after the hurricanes, both in providing an avenue for residents to contact authorities through means such as Facebook and enabling officials to communicate with each through apps such as WhatsApp.
“After going through two storms, social media’s actually what kept us up and running,” said Carolyn Wattley, district manager for the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, referring to hurricanes Irma and Maria. She said residents often contacted emergency responders through Facebook when they couldn’t get through by phone and that she and colleagues at the St. Croix PSAP communicated via WhatsApp.
She and other public safety officials at today’s event stressed the importance of their PSAPs getting location data with calls. That didn’t always happen after the hurricanes, making it impossible to attempt to locate callers who hung up before being helped.
According a Hurricane Maria outage report released by the FCC today, while the St. Croix and the St. Thomas PSAPs are operational, “Phase I and Phase II location information for wireless callers and Automatic Number and Location Information (ANI/ALI) for VoIP callers has been intermittently available.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all about location for 911,” said Greg Rubin, communications chief for the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, stressing the importance of open-source, rather than proprietary, technology. “If we can’t find the 911 caller, it doesn’t matter.”
Lt. Ronald Sliman of the Miami-Dade Police Department agreed, and he also stressed the need for funding to make emergency communications redundant, including through the use of geographically diverse assets and backup power supplies. The federal government should drive the adoption of standards and impose timelines on deployments, he added.
“I will tell you the next-gen environment is expensive,” said Stan Heffernan, chief operations officer of the Greater Harris County 911 Network in Houston, which dealt with huge flooding challenges after Hurricane Harvey. However, he said it fared relatively well because it has nearly transitioned to NG-911. He also said a competitive environment for equipment has helped drive down costs.
Ms. Wattley and Nadia Fearon, 911 district manager in St. Croix, also expressed support for government mandates concerning 911.
Ms. Wattley also said the FCC should educate first responders on the resources it provides, noting the difficulty that public safety professionals in the Virgin Islands face in networking face-to-face with their colleagues elsewhere. “We need a lot more information from our partners,” she said, “and it needs to trickle down. It doesn’t need to stay at the top.”- Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org