The Federal Communications Commission is conducting an investigation into the causes of several recent 911 services outages following the devastating derecho — a severe, straight-line wind storm — that struck the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic at the end of June. Initially the FCC sought input from utility and communications companies, but the agency has now expanded its inquiry to request feedback from consumers as well.
From the FCC’s Public Notice:
By this Public Notice, the Commission and the Bureau further expand the ongoing inquiry. The Public Notice broadens the inquiry in two ways, by expanding those who may contribute relevant information to include the public, and focusing not only on issues directly surrounding the derecho and what happened during and after it, but also on other experiences associated with natural disasters throughout the nation that involve outages or are otherwise related to the resiliency and reliability of communications services and networks of all kinds that are used to seek, process or obtain emergency assistance.
By enlisting help from the public, the FCC is hoping to get a better picture of any weak points in the nation’s emergency services systems, as well as a sense of how consumers are notified of problems, and what effect outages have on safety conditions. Combined with feedback from service providers, consumer comments should help to identify where major problems exist, and therefore where officials should prioritize upgrade efforts.
Smart grid technologies can help utilities re-route electricity to keep 911 facilities running during a disaster. Chattanooga utility company EPB, for example, has the power infrastructure and communications in place to redirect electricity when needed. However, the reality is that utility companies vary drastically from system to system, and there is no standardized way to outfit them for smarter load balancing and power routing. Debates about upgrading the nation’s electric grid are ongoing, and there are questions not only about electricity generation and transport, but also about how to ensure the reliability and effectiveness of utility communications systems. In short, the solutions for upgrading emergency infrastructure support are not obvious. But identifying where the problems are is a good first step.
Public comments to the FCC are due on August 17th. Commenters can file by mail or messenger, or by using the FCC’s electronic filing system.