Feds blame phone companies for ‘unacceptable’ 911 outages after derecho

Telephone companies' failure to follow their own safety procedures led to "large-scale" outages of emergency 911 service during the derecho storm last June, according to a report released on Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Chairman Julius Genachowski said he will push regulations that would require phone companies to do a better job of protecting emergency communications.

“Americans must be able to reach 911, especially in times of natural disaster," Genachowski said in a statement. He called the communication failures "unacceptable" and said the FCC will "do whatever is necessary to ensure the reliability of 911."

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The agency's investigation found that the derecho, a large, high-speed wind storm, caused 77 emergency call centers in six states to lose some degree of service. 

The investigators found that 17 call centers in three states lost service completely — meaning 2 million people were unable to call 911.

The agency said there were "isolated breakdowns" in 911 service in Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana, and "systemic failures" in northern Virginia and West Virginia.

The FCC concluded that emergency communications were disrupted "in large part because of avoidable planning and system failures, including the lack of functional backup power."

The commission's Public Safety Bureau, which conducted the investigation, recommended that the agency consider enacting backup power requirements and mandating network monitoring procedures.

The bureau said phone companies should be required to conduct periodic audits of 911 circuits and should be required to notify 911 call centers about potential service problems.

Although Hurricane Sandy also caused widespread damage to communications networks, the FCC's report focused on the derecho's impact on 911 service.

An FCC official explained that, because phone companies had more warning before Sandy hit, the storm caused fewer 911 outages than the derecho.

The FCC will conduct the first in a series of field hearings on Hurricane Sandy next month.