Northern Virginia's three congressmen called on the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday to take action that will prevent future outages to the region's 911 systems.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, U.S. Reps. Jim Moran, Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf asked that the commission dust off a post-Hurricane Katrina regulation that would have required all telecommunications companies to provide at least eight hours of backup power for all cell phone towers.
The regulation was subsequently struck down on a technicality related to how the commission handled public comments, according to a news release.
“In the event of an emergency situation, whether it be a natural disaster or man-made threat, the public needs confidence that they can get through to 911 operators,” Moran stated in the release. “This storm exposed a weakness in our response system, and now that we know it exists, we must fix it.”
An estimated 2.3 million people in Northern Virginia lost access to critical 911 services for up to four days following the late-June derecho, a powerful wind storm, according to The Washington Post.
Verizon, which operates the emergency systems, has blamed a malfunctioning "trunk line" in Arlington.
Verizon officials Wednesday said that one of two diesel-powered generators failed in the hours after the storm, exacerbating the problem — though a spokesman later called that only "one factor," according to the Post.
The loss of the system came at a terrible time, in the middle a days-long heat wave that saw dangerously high temperatures — particularly for the hundreds of thousands without power.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova has called for a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments task force to investigate the failure of the 911 systems. The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has called for a similar investigation.
Verizon is conducting its own internal investigation.
Some time after the regulations proposed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina failed, FCC staff developed the National Broadband Plan, which included its own set of recommendations — including those on backup power to critical communications infrastructure.
In April 2011, the FCC opened a notice of inquiry regarding the "reliability and continuity of communications networks…" and other topics that rolled together all previous recommendations. (See paragraphs 23 through 26 here.)
In it, the commission asks for comments on a long list of items — including what types of communications services should be prioritized, whether areas prone to natural disasters should be given more resources, and whether advances in backup power technology, including the use of solar power, will overtake more traditional batteries and generators — and, if so, what resources should be put forth to facilitate those advancements.
The commission also notes that telecommunications companies cited local zoning and environmental regulations that affect cell towers as impediments to implementing "certain" backup technologies.
The notice of inquiry remains open — that is, the FCC is still receiving comments — and will continue to be open until the commission determines it has enough information to proceed. Then, either commission staff will formulate recommendations or the matter will be handed off to an advisory committee.
FCC representatives would not comment Thursday on the congressmen's request. They sent the following statement, attributed to the commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau chief, David S. Turetsky:
"We plan to meet with a number of carriers in the coming weeks to explore the cause of service issues to 911 service centers, overall lessons learned, and other issues to ensure that the public received the best communications service possible and is able to communicate effectively and in a way that safeguards public safety in these situations."
The "eight-hour" regulation cited by Moran, Connolly and Wolf might not be good enough — some Northern Virginia residents were unable to access the 911 system for up to four days.
Still, the congressmen expect a response from the FCC.
"I'm optimistic about this. I think we'll have a good resolution," said Anne Hughes, a Moran spokeswoman. "Because this can't happen again."