FCC Staff Hurricane Report Details Actions to Bolter Response

The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a report today that details a number of planned or recommended steps to improve emergency response and recovery efforts in the wake of last year’s historic Atlantic hurricane season, including promoting the value of the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) and requesting more DIRS data from providers, encouraging backhaul providers to participate in the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework and seeking more granular data, improving the ability to verify the availability of commercial wireless services, bolstering engagement with other critical infrastructure sectors, suggesting that industry entities partner with localities on training for emergencies, and recommending the implementation of various best practices.

“The storms of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season put considerable, and in some cases unprecedented, stress on numerous communications infrastructures — wireless, cable, wireline, and broadcasting. Consideration and implementation of the lessons learned from the 2017 season can help ensure that the communications ecosystem continues to harden and become ever more resilient,” the 36-page report said. “Although last year was an anomaly as far as the severity and number of named storms, all members of the communications community should take what steps they can, now, to lessen a storm’s impact. PSHSB looks forward to sharing lessons learned with its partners within the Commission, with its federal partners, with state, local, territorial, and Tribal governments, and with communication service provider[s]. … Even though following all recommendations cannot preclude an adverse communications event, diligent and early adoption will lessen the impact of that event.”

“The adverse effect of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season on communications increased in magnitude as the season went on,” the report stressed. “While the damage caused by the August 2017 landing of Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf Coast region, especially Houston, was quickly remedied (within a week, ninety-eight percent of cell towers were back to operational), recovery times for communications became more challenging as the intensity of destruction increased. The early September 2017 arrival of Hurricane Irma, first in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico, and then parts of Florida, followed in short order by Hurricane Maria, again in Puerto Rico and the USVI just two weeks after Irma, largely destroyed the communications infrastructures of both territories. Finally, the October 2017 arrival of Hurricane Nate caused damage primarily through flooding in the north Gulf Coast region (Mississippi to Florida).”

The report continued, “Emergency call centers on the American mainland seem to have survived each storm relatively well; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) did not receive reports of widespread 911 call center outages in those areas affected by the storms. In contrast, the 911 call centers serving Puerto Rico and the USVI were impacted, and were either completely out of service for a period of time (as happened in the USVI), or could not receive the types of information (location, call back number, etc., as happened in both Puerto Rico and the USVI) that both they and the American public have come to expect. Between them, Puerto Rico and the USVI have only four 911 call centers (two each) to serve 3.4 million people; for some time, none of those call centers were fully functional.”

The report noted that the impact on communications infrastructure was the worst in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which knocked out 95.6% of cell sites in Puerto Rico and 76.6% of cell sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It took six months for wireless service to be nearly fully restored.

The planned FCC staff actions detailed in the report as well as the recommendations for steps that industry, localities, and others should take are the result of input from the FCC’s Hurricane Recovery Task Force and other stakeholders, including those that filed comments with the FCC and spoke at a workshop earlier this year (TR Daily, April 13).

“During the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, DIRS reporting by broadcasters lagged other communications sectors. In addition, during Hurricane Maria, the major incumbent local exchange carrier and cable providers in Puerto Rico and the USVI did not provide detailed information in DIRS,” the report noted. “In some cases, the lack of participation was due to service providers’ loss of communications which precluded access to the DIRS platform. In other cases, service providers may not have been aware of DIRS prior to the hurricanes. Lastly, the Commission received public comments and other feedback that both the publicly-available, aggregated DIRS information and the non-public DIRS reports did not provide adequate information to reflect the consumers’ communications experience.”

The report said that to address the gaps that arose, the bureau plans to (1) “design and deploy a vigorous outreach program targeted at communications service providers to promote the value of DIRS participation;” and (2) “retool the DIRS data model to (a) include data elements that better reflect degraded customer experience, especially as a disaster migrates from near-term response to long-term recovery, and (b) consistently include geospatial information in formats that are most helpful to user communities, especially to support decision making for deploying response personnel and assets.”

Regarding the Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework, the report noted that, among other things, some parties have stressed the benefits of including additional and more granular information.

The Public Safety Bureau said that, in coordination with the Wireline Competition and Wireless Telecommunications bureaus, it will (1) “[e]ncourage backhaul providers to participate in the Wireless Framework and work cooperatively with wireless service providers and other stakeholders to develop: (a) a process for sharing restoration information with one another and the FCC, including a timeline of expected restoration efforts based on either the prioritized list of circuits or circuits designated for high traffic during emergencies; (b) best practices for information sharing and network restoration prioritization efforts, including coordination with federal, state, and local emergency agencies and power companies; and (c) a sustainable process for preparing and sharing contact information of emergency response agencies and power companies for emergency response, network restoration, and continuity of operations with other Wireless Framework signatories, affected providers, and the Commission;” and (2) “[s]eek voluntary industry commitments from Wireless Framework signatories to provide data of greater granularity that could be made public on an aggregated, anonymous basis when the Wireless Framework is triggered.”

The report also noted that the agency’s hurricane task force “noted that the Commission lacked a mechanism to independently verify information on the availability of commercial wireless services that providers voluntarily submitted into DIRS. To address this issue and to provide a geospatial view of wireless coverage, the Office of Engineering & Technology (OET) and Enforcement Bureau (EB) investigated leveraging ongoing work with a third-party smartphone app developer to create a prototype radio frequency (RF) survey application that senses the presence of RF signals in commercial wireless bands of interest. While initial distribution would be limited to authorized emergency responders deployed to a particular disaster area, the app could ultimately be made available via application stores so that it can be distributed widely. Making the app widely available would increase the range and the granularity of the RF survey. OET, EB and PSHSB plan to work collectively with emergency responders on the distribution and use of the app to assist with future disaster response and recovery efforts. In addition, OET, EB and PSHSB will design a dashboard for analyzing wireless service availability during disaster events.”

The report also said that the Public Safety Bureau “is now considering developing more integrated reporting from the various OTA [over-the-air] observation systems which might increase reporting speed and free [FCC spectrum] Roll Call teams for additional scans, analysis and reporting. As part of this consideration, PSHSB will also examine whether OTA capability can be used to validate coverage and capacity of wireless telecommunications networks in disaster areas.”

The report also said that last year’s hurricanes reinforced how important relationship-building is to responding to disasters. “Going forward, PSHSB will more actively engage with Critical Infrastructure (CI) sectors and SLTT [state, local, tribal, and territorial] governments to better address and position communications needs in times of disaster. On the federal level, PSHSB will engage more substantively with other ESFs [emergency support functions], particularly Transportation (ESF#1) and Energy (ESF#12), to learn more about how these sectors can coordinate better during emergencies to work more effectively together to support service restoration. Commission personnel also should become more active with DHS cross-sector risk identification and risk mitigation activities and increase the FCC’s participation in interagency exercises that address these cross-dependencies. PSHSB will also take a more active role in promoting the Commission’s relationships with its SLTT partners, to ensure it engages the appropriate response managers, who are the focal point of decision-making and allocations of scarce resources during disasters related to power, logistics, and access.”

The report also emphasized the need to provide emergency information in multiple languages.

It said that the “Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) will lead the creation and dissemination of both English and non-English digital audio-visual content on additional platforms that can be downloaded for use on-air by radio and television broadcasters, linked to/from other emergency officials at all levels, and featured on social media. PSHSB will lead internal outreach to FCC staff to leverage the non-English languages skills of FCC personnel. We expect this will lead to the creation of a database where FCC staff volunteers would be able to self-identify non-English language skills—including American Sign Language—and willingness to assist in outreach as a component of the FCC’s emergency response. To this end, IMTs in the future will add non-English language outreach as a component of preparing for and responding to disasters.”

The report also encouraged the adoption of various best practices.

For example, it said that federal agencies should ensure they have a sufficient number of trained responders, should maintain pre-event spectrum data for areas that might be impacted by disasters, and “should evaluate the potential effectiveness of using novel or experimental systems to help restore critical communications during disaster response, prior-coordinate spectrum support for those systems ahead of landfall, when possible[,] and preposition equipment.”

“Because interagency and inter-jurisdictional relationship-building and co-training is essential for successful response, communications providers and responders should participate in local communications and alerting planning events, information exchanges, and exercises well before a disaster to validate response plans and processes, ensure capable and qualified communications response personnel, and cultivate critical interagency relationships,” the report said. “Those providing critical communications services should ensure there is sufficient physical path diversity, which may include addition of satellite networks, microwave links, or alternate wireline connections.”

Also, the report said that “[s]ervice providers, network operators, and others should ensure they have reviewed, and are implementing where practicable, best practices issued by the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) and applicable standards bodies.”

The report also said that “911 service providers should establish alternate routing arrangements where possible and, in the longer term, leverage the potential benefits of IP-enabled NG911 networks.”

For their part, public safety answering points (PSAPs) “should, where possible and feasible, prepare for an event by pre-arranging for 911 calls to roll over to secondary, and even tertiary sites, and pre-arrange for access to a mobile PSAP.”

The report also cited the effectiveness of amateur radio communications after disasters and said that “[t]he effectiveness of Amateur Radio Service (ARS) Emergency Communications (EmComm) would have benefitted from a more comprehensive disaster response/deployment plan coordinated in advance with DHS (FEMA, National Coordinating Center for Communications (NCC), and Office of Emergency Communications (OEC)) and the Red Cross …”

In a statement on the report, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel reiterated her complaints with the FCC’s response to the hurricanes.

“Thank you to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau for this report capturing how our communications networks fared during last year’s hurricane season.  But let’s not kid ourselves—releasing this report 85 days into the current hurricane season and as an historic storm gets closer to Hawaii’s shores, is simply too little, too late,” Ms. Rosenworcel said.

“After Hurricane Katrina, this agency established an independent panel that brought to bear a broad background of public safety and industry experiences, including first-hand knowledge of the devastation wrought.  We didn’t do that here.  After Hurricane Sandy, this agency convened a series of field hearings to help inform recommendations and action to improve network resiliency.  Again, we didn’t do that here.  Instead, we lump together four of the most destructive storms in recent history into one 38-page report with a list of recommended, voluntary best practices for federal government partners, service providers, 911 call centers, and consumers,” she said. “Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate all have had their names retired because of their high damage and loss of life.  In short, this slim and long-overdue review fails to capture the gravity of these storms.”

Ms. Rosenworcel continued, “As we are already seeing, Mother Nature’s wrath is sure to visit us again.  I hope going forward we can make a greater effort to learn from disasters in a timely way, so we can do more to improve emergency response and infrastructure recovery.”

An FCC spokesperson said of the report and Ms. Rosenworcel’s statement, “Unlike Commissioner Rosenworcel, this FCC prioritizes action. That’s why, among other things, we have made available over $130 million in universal service funding to help recovery efforts, granted more than 900 waivers and requests for Special Temporary Authority to help re-establish communications in hurricane-affected areas, expedited approval of an experimental license for Alphabet’s Project Loon to provide Internet access to residents, approved targeted and flexible E-Rate support to help restore connectivity of schools and libraries, granted temporary waivers of Lifeline’s recertification rules, and accelerated the post-incentive auction transition to support Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Island broadcasters.  Moreover, in the aftermath of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, Chairman [Ajit] Pai quickly went to meet with first responders on the ground to assess the situation and find out what the FCC could do to help.” -Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily