Public safety and emergency response officials suggested today that the information on communications facilities status provided by the FCC during disasters such as last year’s hurricanes could be more timely and presented in a way to emphasize “actionable” information.
In remarks at the beginning of the workshop, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “The ability to communicate information is critical during emergencies—it’s what helps us warn communities, dispatch assistance, and more.” He added that the agency has already received input in response to a public notice released in December on its performance during the 2017 hurricane season and said the agency the workshop would provide “a candid discussion about what information the Commission could or should provide to help improve disaster response and recovery efforts.”
During the first panel, officials from federal agencies with missions related to emergency and disaster response noted that information in the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) is 24 hours old by the time they get it and may not include information from all providers, since compliance is voluntary.
“We can’t just change” DIRS reporting to “mandatory, FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Associate Chief Jeff Goldthorp noted.
DIRS was created by the bureau in 2007 at the recommendation of the agency’s Hurricane Katrina panel (TR Daily, Sept. 11, 2007). Because compliance was voluntary, it did not require a rulemaking proceeding. The information is treated as presumptively confidential but is shared with the National Coordinating Center for Communications at the Department of Homeland Security, which then distributes a report to emergency and disaster response agencies.
NCCC Director John O’Connor said that if providers report outages in either DIRS or the FCC’s Network Outage Reporting System, they “might not need to do the other.” But if providers are not reporting in either, that might need to be addressed, he said.
Jarrett Devine, regional emergency communications coordinator for Region 1 at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, “I think the important thing about any information we receive is [that] it has to inform the response. … It has to enable us to make a better response.”
He cited as an example of such information the ability to overlay maps of broadcast outages with cellular service outages after Hurricane Maria to identify areas where residents could not receive either broadcast alerts or wireless emergency alerts (WEA). “We immediately knew where we couldn’t warn our population” and could mobilize response teams to reach them.
Christopher Alexander, deputy chief–priority services in the DHS Office of Emergency Communications, emphasized that one limitation of DIRS reports is that they show “where the dots,” or cell towers, are, but not the coverage area of each tower. Sharing that information ahead of time “if they know it, if we could firewall it,” would help responders understand in what areas the public might not be able to report specific emergencies. “Situational awareness is critical at the national level as well as down at their [local responders’] level … so I can more effectively argue at the incident command level, so you can get what you need,” he said.
Mr. Devine said the communications providers that are “selling themselves as public-safety grade” have to be able to identify where their services are available and where they are not during and in the wake of a disaster.
Gregory Boren, FEMA regional emergency communications coordinator for Region VI, which, he noted, includes “two hurricane states, Texas and Louisiana,” said that the DIRS reports need “more granularity.” Being told that only 5% of the towers are out in your country, “if it’s 100% in your jurisdiction,” isn’t helpful, he said. For example, Rockport, Texas, “was 100% out, but the county was at 50%” after Hurricane Harvey.
Mr. Devine emphasized that while DIRS information could be improved, “we appreciate what we get.”
Mr. Goldthorp asked whether there was raw information “in the data dictionary” of what providers report to DIRS “that you think would be helpful to you in the field” if it were included in the reports they receive, of if there is information DIRS should be asked providers for that is not currently part of the data dictionary.
“Maybe highlighting critical outages or things that are trended in the wrong direction,” Mr. Boren said. “I’m paging through it as fast as I can trying to find the bad news of the day.”
Mr. Devine said that the aggregation of data in the DIRS reports “gets us to trend analysis. What’s the next step? How much more can we push the data to get to ‘so what’? Trend analysis isn’t ‘so what.’ It doesn’t inform the response.”
Mr. O’Conner said, “We need to know why it’s down.” Outages that are due to destruction of the facility, lack of power, or lack of backhaul connectivity require different responses, he said.
Regarding the FCC’s Roll Call system in which the agency sends out equipment to check radio frequencies for outage evidence after emergencies, Mr. Boran said that it would be helpful to deploy the equipment before an expected event such as a hurricane to gather baseline information
From the audience, former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, now a special policy adviser for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, asked what was being done to prepare for and improve response when future hurricanes hit Puerto Rico.
Scott Jackson from the Office of Spectrum Management’s Emergency Response Team at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said, “We are looking at that, at how we can [ensure that facilities are] hardened and ruggedized.”
Christopher Tuttle, emergency communications coordinator for Region 2 at DHS, said, “Part of our discipline is we’re constantly looking at how we can do things better.” He suggested that there are best practices such as burying cable that can improve outcomes. “Through a variety of circumstances we have an opportunity [in Puerto Rico]” to build systems that model those best practices, he added. He said that DHS was a developing a report on such issues that should be released in a couple of months “after Puerto Rico has had a chance to comment on it.”
The second panel included state and territorial officials, as well as other involved in local response.
Capt. Robert J. Landolfi Jr. (USCG), chief–future operations for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic area, said that the Coast Guard is not trained in 911 call response, but that when public safety answering points in Texas were destroyed, some calls were routed to them. “If we can keep those calls from escaping the system set up to handle them, the whole system will be better off,” he said.
Jay English, chief technology officer at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, said, “The architecture of the 911 system does not lend itself to transferring a call to the U.S. Coast Guard; that was an anomaly [because in] Rockport, the PSAP wasn’t down. It was gone.” He added, “The fact that the Coast Guard was there to handle the calls and stepped up is testament to them not only as military but as first responders, but that shouldn’t happen.” He added, “I think Rockport had a trailer out in 24 or 48 hours to take  calls.”
Similarly, Todd Spencer, program coordinator–response at the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that the Texas State Police Department doesn’t normally handle 911 calls, but in the wake of Hurricane Harvey calls were transferred to them and they handled them.
Asked whether public safety agencies are getting the information they need from the FCC on communications outages, Mr. English said that “on a daily basis,” public safety agencies don’t hear from the FCC unless there’s an outage. Sometime the information is not provided “in a way that gives public safety agencies actionable intelligence,” he said. For example, agencies need to know if a cell-site is “down on the ground” and whether ANI and ALI information on incoming calls is available.
He also said that more granular information is needed. For example, outage reports that focus on which cell towers are down rather than how many minutes an outage lasts would be more helpful, he said.
Danette McBride, communications engineer for the Florida Department of Management Services, who participated by conference bridge, said that communications providers work with her office during emergency and will provide information directly “that they can’t put in a report.
Sandra Torres-López, chairwoman of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, echoed that, saying that carriers provide information “confidentially to us.”
During another session at today’s workshop, consumer advocates stressed the importance of ensuring there is adequate outreach to consumers, including senior citizens and people with disabilities, before and after emergencies such as last year’s hurricanes. They also emphasized the difficulties consumers have had communicating, especially when power is out, including areas such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year.
Ed Krom, field communications coordinator for the American Red Cross, said that the islands had no terrestrial communications when the Red Cross arrived after the hurricanes and no satellite service at the beginning.
“We didn’t know what our people were doing” due to the lack of communications, he said. He said the Red Cross has satellite phones and portable satellite dishes and had equipment predeployed. But the power outages made it difficult to operate the equipment. He said the organization is looking at deploying more solar-powered generators in the future.
Mace Thornton, executive director-communications for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers and ranchers are often in the middle of deadly weather “so critical timely warnings about weather information are critical to our folks.”
He and other speakers said that radio is a critical source of news and information, particularly when wireless service is disrupted.
However, Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, and Lisa Montalvo, president of the Latino Deaf and Hard of Hearing Association of the Metropolitan DC Area, noted that radio is not helpful to the deaf and hard of hearing. Mr. Rosenblum expressed concern that some local television stations don’t have live captioning, making it difficult for those who are deaf and hard of hearing to follow them for news during emergencies. He also said it’s crucial to ensure that all people, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing, get wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) during major disasters and are not able to opt out of them. “We’re talking about situations of life and death,” he said.
Another issue is how to alert the deaf and hard of hearing in the middle of the night when they would be asleep. “Sirens aren’t going to work,” he said. Vibrating equipment and “shakers” are available, but not all such equipment is connected to emergency signaling equipment because there has not been an “appropriate investment” in that, Mr. Rosenblum said.
“We are the last people to know what’s going on” during emergencies, especially in remote areas such as Puerto Rico, said Ms. Montalvo, who has worked to help Puerto Rican residents recover from the storms.
Ms. Montalvo and Mr. Rosenblum also said that it would be helpful if groups trying to help the deaf and hard of hearing after hurricanes and other emergencies could get access to telecommunications relay service subscriber information so they could locate these people.
Cristina Martin Firvida, director–financial security and consumer affairs for AARP, said Lifeline subscriber information would also be helpful in locating lower-income people to provide assistance.
Ms. Firvida also said that some of her state offices reported that government agencies during emergencies want to provide essential information on their websites, which she said “may not make sense directly after a disaster” due to power outages. —Lynn Stanton, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Paul Kirby, email@example.com