F.C.C. Describes 911 and Cellphone Problems




The Federal Communications Commission also said “a small number” of 911 service centers — the sites that receive emergency calls and link them with first responders — also were out of service after the storm, the second time in recent months that 911 service has suffered weather-related failures. Many emergency calls were rerouted, officials said, to call centers that survived the storm.

“Our assumption is that communication outages could get worse before they get better,” Julius Genachowski, the F.C.C. chairman, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “I want to emphasize that the storm is not over,” he said, referring to both the weather and the facilities.

Verizon Wireless said Wednesday that 6 percent of its cell sites remained down in storm-affected areas, although all of its switching and data centers “are functioning normally.” T-Mobile issued a statement saying that roughly 20 percent of its network in New York City was out of service, as was up to 10 percent of its network in Washington.

AT&T declined to specify the status of its systems on Wednesday. All of the companies said they were working to assess and repair the damaged networks.

Some of the emergency calls that were affected by the storm were rerouted to new 911 service centers without electronic location information, which tells the operator where the call originated. This means public safety officials must rely on callers for details about where an emergency was occurring, Mr. Genachowski said.

F.C.C. officials declined to identify where the affected 911 centers were located, or which phone companies were responsible for servicing them.

Roughly one-quarter of the residents of the 10 states that were affected by the storm also lost cable television and broadband Internet service, killing most or all of the connections that millions of consumers were relying on for information.

Few radio broadcasters were affected by the storm, said David Turetsky, the chief of the F.C.C.’s public safety and homeland security bureau. Three stations received F.C.C. permission to broadcast at higher power levels, and one station relocated its transmissions on the broadcast spectrum because of damage to its radio tower.

The F.C.C. activated its disaster reporting information system during the storm, a voluntary system through which wireless, landline, broadcast, satellite and cable TV companies can report the status of their systems. Based on those reports, and its own on-the-ground assessments, the F.C.C. knows where the problems are and which companies are responsible for addressing them, but officials declined on Tuesday to make that information public.

In its manual for use of the disaster system, the F.C.C. says that the information “is sensitive for national security and/or commercial reasons” and therefore will be treated as “presumptively confidential.”

Similar storm-related 911 failures have been the subject of previous F.C.C. scrutiny. The commission is currently in the middle of a formal inquiry into the causes of widespread failures of 911 networks in June resulting from the derecho, a violent wind and thunderstorm.

“From isolated breakdowns in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Pennsylvania to systemic failures in Northern Virginia and West Virginia, it appears that a significant number of 911 systems and services were partially or completely down for several days,” the F.C.C. said in statements related to that inquiry.

Roughly one million people in Northern Virginia were affected by 911 failures in June, which primarily occurred in systems managed by Verizon. Company officials said before this week’s storm that they had made a number of improvements to their emergency systems and backups that would help them maintain service during the storm.

The commission collected public comments on the 911 failures over the summer, but it has yet to report its findings.

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