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FCC Probes Widespread Problems With 911 Call System During Blizzard

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Members of the FDNY Members of the FDNY (Al_HikesAZ/flickr)

The trouble many people had reaching 911 during the blizzard in December is now a federal issue.

WNYC has learned the Federal Communications Commission is investigating problems with the emergency call system that extended from Virginia up through New England.

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny confirmed that during the December 26 blizzard, federal regulators got reports of 911 system problems  up the I-95 corridor. That same storm hit the city's 911 system hard with frustrated callers reporting busy signals and recorded messages asking them to hold on.

Kenny said the FCC has convened a team to analyze phone company reports on dropped calls and 911 system failures during the storm

Last year, two thirds of all 911 calls were made from cell phones. It was only last year that the FCC began making rules to require cell carriers to reliably provide 911 networks with basic data, like the origin of  emergency calls and the physical location of the caller.

Despite all the advances in communication technology, experts are concerned that the requirements and 911 systems have not kept pace with those advances -- and that 911 remains a patchwork of dated technologies being pressed beyond their capabilities.
 
‪FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said getting 911 right across the country has to be the agency's No. 1 job. 

"One of our urgent priorities must be putting in place a nationwide, interoperable broadband public safety network," wrote Copps in response to a WNYC query. "I have been speaking about this since 9/11. If we can't be farther along than we are by 9/11/11— a decade from the event — government will have a lot of explaining to do."

Copps said the National Broadband Plan released last year put the right emphasis on getting such a system built.

"I do believe Congress will be addressing the issue this year, but we have to redouble our efforts now and actually make something happen," he wrote.

Locally, New York City's 911 rehab program remains years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over intitial cost estimates.

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