Urgent Matters

Multistate 911 outage could lead to changes in emergency-calling regulations, operations

by Donny Jackson
Oct 24, 2014

After a state regulator acknowledged that IP-based components of 911 are "interstate in nature," it appears that table is set for the FCC and other federal-government agencies to take a more active role in the evolution to next-generation 911. Whether that comes in the form of regulation, legislation and/or funding remains to be seen, but it is likely that the current 911 landscape--particularly the relationship between carriers and third-party 911 vendors--will change in the near future.

Last week, the FCC heard a presentation detailing the issues leading to the massive 911 outage that resulted in more than 6,600 emergency calls never reaching a public-safety answering point (PSAP) for up to six hours on April 9-10. The outage affected 81 PSAPs, including all PSAPs in the state of Washington and those in parts of six other states.

The root cause of the problem was software code at the Intrado data center in Englewood, Colo., included an “arbitrary”—according to one FCC official—counter cap for Intrado’s carrier customers. When the number of 911 calls to the data center exceeded the cap, the data center stopped routing the calls to PSAPs, leaving thousands of emergency callers unable to access help from first responders. Eventually, 911 calls to the Englewood, Colo., data center were rerouted through Intrado’s data center in Miami, but this was not done until several hours of emergency calls were unanswered.

Fortunately—and almost amazingly—no one died because of the outage, but there were some harrowing anecdotes. For instance, one woman called 911 several times in vain because her mother—recently released from the hospital after undergoing surgery—fainted several times. The woman ultimately called a hospital directly and was able to get an ambulance dispatched.

Of course, this isn’t how it is supposed to work; a call to 911 is supposed to be answered promptly, and the proper emergency resources are supposed to be dispatched quickly to the scene. FCC commissioners were outspoken in their criticism of the situation, with words like “terrifying,” “unacceptable,” “totally inadequate,” and “preventable” highlighting the discussion.

Among those that testified before the FCC was David Danner, chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission—the regulatory body that oversees 911 service in the state—who described 911 as “literally a lifeline” that U.S. residents depend upon to work reliably in times of emergencies.

“It’s imperative that we minimize the frequency and duration of 911 outages, that we ensure that we have sufficient redundancy built into these systems, that we maintain accurate ALI databases, and that we ensure that companies provide timely communication both with state agencies and the public when 911 services go down,” Danner said.

“This outage and others shine a light on the need to continually assess—and reassess—the architecture of next-generation 911 systems, which are increasingly interstate in nature, and we must identify and address any gaps in the regulation of 911 that may result from the transition to an IP-based system. I think the best way to do that is to establish an ongoing dialog and collaboration between the FCC and the states.”

While Danner’s statements about the need for 911 to be reliable certainly ring true, his description of this problem being “interstate in nature” may prove to be more significant from a regulatory perspective, because this outage—as well as similar “sunny day” 911 outages being investigated in four other states—may compel the federal government to become more involved in 911 oversight.

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