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911 Attention Grows After Dallas PSAP Overload, AT&T Outage

Caller overload at the Dallas 911 center, coming soon after a widespread AT&T wireless 911 outage, shows that maintaining the emergency-number service must be a priority for industry and government, 911 officials said Friday. The FCC said it will provide an update on the AT&T outage at commissioners' Thursday meeting, and 911 officials said they look forward to learning more information. Meanwhile, a few state legislatures are moving bills that could direct funding to 911 systems. And at the Nebraska Public Service Commission, industry said "no" to state requirements for 911 reliability exceeding what the FCC requires.

A takeaway from the recent outages is the need for adequate funding and staffing, National Emergency Number Association CEO Brian Fontes emailed Friday. “There is a need to ensure 9-1-1 is operating consistent with industry best practices for staffing, staff who are trained and have the latest technologies available to them.” Next-Generation 911 should be funded and deployed nationwide, he said. Fontes said all levels of government should prioritize 911.

Dallas faced 911 call overload that slowed emergency response. The problems delayed response to calls about two people who later died, reported the Associated Press. At first, Dallas said ghost calls from the T-Mobile network caused overload at the call center, but in a Thursday news release, the city said the carrier investigated and found that the problem was abandoned calls in which the caller hung up before reaching a 911 call taker. Not all the abandoned calls originated from the T-Mobile network, a company spokesman said.

Dallas responded by adding “a dozen” extra 911 workers to take calls over the weekend, and the city is pursuing technology upgrades, the city said. T-Mobile adjusted its network to improve 911 call delivery, the city said. “Staff and T-Mobile worked through the night and have determined some immediate technological upgrades that will better serve our citizens calling 911,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (D). “City Manager T.C. Broadnax has committed to increasing staffing and recommending any other budgetary enhancements to our 911 call center.”

We can’t say for sure that every abandoned call that comes in is from T-Mobile,” said the city’s Communication and Information Services assistant director John Cheffy on a news-media call Friday. “The issue has been only related to T-Mobile calls as far as we’ve been able to detect.” A Dallas spokeswoman said the investigation is ongoing: "We don’t know what went wrong yet."

We are very concerned about this issue,” emailed Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications Executive Director Kelli Merriweather. “It appears the causes were more of an operational nature -- a staffing shortage and need for more advanced 9-1-1 equipment and computing capabilities.” Dallas operates independently from the state’s oversight and funding authority, she said. “I have reached out to the city’s communications department to offer our assistance and support should they need it. Right now, we are monitoring the situation and waiting for more details to assess the situation and take preventative actions at other 9-1-1 centers in Texas to make sure these types of tragedies do not happen in other parts of the state regardless of jurisdictional oversight.”

FCC

The FCC meanwhile has been on the case.

The Public Safety Bureau will update commissioners and the public Thursday about the agency’s inquiry into the AT&T wireless 911 outage that occurred March 8 (see 1703090017), said a meeting agenda posted last week. "The FCC is continuing to monitor the 911 situation in Dallas," a spokeswoman said. An AT&T spokesman said Friday, “We take our obligations to our customers very seriously and will continue to cooperate with the FCC.”

More information from the FCC on the AT&T outage will be helpful in preventing future 911 problems, said Texas 9-1-1 Alliance CEO Jim Goerke, a working group chairman last year on the FCC Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture. Texas was one state affected by the AT&T outage. “Still waiting on more detail about both [the Dallas and AT&T] situations before we draw any conclusions, and work on ways to keep them from happening in the future,” Goerke emailed. “Yes, we do indeed take them seriously, but need to be sure about the facts first.”

As for Dallas, that problem appeared localized, said National Association of State 911 Administrators Executive Director Evelyn Bailey. Upgrades to Dallas' internal system and adding staff “are technical and operational issues at the 911 center level, which, once resolved, would mitigate and perhaps eliminate the problem,” she emailed. “The larger 911 system performed exactly as it was supposed to: it delivered calls to the appropriate 911 center.”

State 911 Bills

Some state legislatures advanced bills last week to ensure funding for 911 systems and NG service.

A Montana Senate panel heard a proposal​ to update state 911 laws to ensure the fee revenue goes to those networks, and a Hawaii House panel advanced legislation to establish a 911 fee on prepaid wireless. The measures “reflect forward progress to ensure that all users of the 911 system pay into it, and that NG-911 has the funding it needs,” Bailey said. NENA supports prepaid contributions to 911 and for states to plan for and fund NG-911, Fontes said.

The Montana Senate Energy and Telecom Committee mulled House-passed HB-61, with amendments possible. The legislature is moving the bill after quashing a proposal by Gov. Steve Bullock (D) -- slammed recently by FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly -- to repurpose $12.2 million of unused state 911 reserves to cover budget deficits (see 1703020060). The bill would direct 911 fee revenue instead to NG-911 infrastructure and a statewide 911 plan. The state’s 911 funds should be used for their intended purpose, sponsor Montana Rep. Frank Garner (R) said at the Tuesday hearing. "This is an infrastructure bill," he said, "and it's about some of the most important infrastructure we have.”

The Hawaii House Intrastate Commerce Committee voted 6-1 Wednesday to clear SB-877, which establishes a prepaid wireless E-911 surcharge of 1.5 percent of the price of prepaid wireless service bought at point of sale. It allows sellers to take 3 percent of the surcharge, but they must remit the balance to the state E-911 fund. The Senate passed the bill 25-0 March 7.

A New York bill to end diversion of fees including the 911 surcharge is still sitting in the state Senate Judiciary Committee, and a Rhode Island bill to remove 911 fees and other surcharges from phone bills hasn’t moved in the legislature since January (see 1701040055). The FCC identified those states as diverting 911 funds for unrelated purposes (see 1701170051). Rhode Island Rep. Robert Lancia (R) emailed us Friday, “Since my bill will be heard in the Finance Committee, it may be awhile.” The Providence Journal condemned fee diversion in a March 7 editorial tweeted by the FCC’s O’Rielly. Lancia followed with an opinion piece about his bill a few days later.

Diverting 911 fees to other areas for budget relief is nothing more than legal sleight-of-hand,” Lancia wrote. A previous Lancia bill failed “because our state leaders want a death-grip on taxpayer money, whether taxpayers like it or not,” he said. “While I hope the General Assembly will come to its senses and pass this bill, there is no telling what will happen.”

Nebraska 911

State 911 reliability requirements are unnecessary because FCC rules are sufficient, cable and wireline companies told the Nebraska Public Service Commission in comments due last week in docket C-4893. The PSC, which emailed us the comments Friday, asked about industry practices and whether it should consider additional testing or reporting requirements.

The FCC requires reviews of circuit diversity, backup power and diverse network monitoring, CenturyLink said. If Nebraska were to require additional diversity, the state must provide cost recovery or providers will increase rates, the company said. If providing 911 services to public safety answering points (PSAPs) becomes too burdensome due to added physical diversity or reporting requirements, “current 911 service providers may choose to exit the business,” it said. Windstream concurred: "The FCC has already addressed these issues and appropriately determined that a flexible approach is necessary. Additional regulation at the state level is not needed and would increase compliance costs which might ultimately be borne by customers.” Cox filed similar comments.

State regulation may soon become obsolete with the upcoming transition to NG-911, deployment of Emergency Services Internet Protocol Networks and possible PSAP consolidation, Windstream said. Frontier Communications said "a wide variety of carriers are cooperating today to make the 911 network work, using a variety of communications technologies. Trying to devise appropriate testing or reporting obligations that would conform and be relevant to the variety of carriers and technologies would be difficult, and it is not clear what quantifiable benefits would be obtained.”