FCC addresses 911 services at APCO 2013

The FCC and public safety professionals share the desire to provide reliable and accurate emergency response

During the Federal Communications Commission update session at APCO 2013 last week, David Furth, who serves as deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, discussed issues related to 911 services that are currently before the commission. 

Not surprisingly, the most active topic was text to 911, but issues of location accuracy and 911 reliability were also hot topics. 

A Major Hurdle
In December 2012, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) addressing issues around text to 911. Furth explained that the four major carriers have agreed to be on board by March 2014.

One of the important aspects agreed to involves bounce-back. When a citizen sends a text to 911 in a region that does not support this technology, they will receive a message back advising them to use an alternate method to address the emergency. Without the bounce-back feature, individuals would not receive a response and could assume their emergency is being addressed -- while in reality their message went nowhere. 

As part of their voluntary agreement, the wireless carriers adopted a bounce-back element in March, and it should be implemented by the end of September 2014. The question that remains is how technological changes will affect this system. 

Wireless as well as Over-the-Top (OTT) applications will have to support text to 911. The expectation is that applications that exist on broadband will support bounce-back. Even with the many unknowns, Furth said he feels good about the number of public safety answering points (PSAPs) that have been willing to tackle text to 911 on a trial or operational basis. 

He reassured the room text to 911 is a priority of his bureau. 

Accuracy and Reliability
Another issue in the 911 realm is location accuracy. Furth explained that the current Phase 2 rules (revised in 2011) focused primarily on outdoor locations. This made sense several years ago, as most wireless use occurred while people were away from their home or work structure. 

Fast forward to today, when many citizens no longer even have a landline and do all their communication from wireless devices, oftentimes indoors. Although recent testing in San Francisco looks promising, Furth explained, “There will need to be more technological breakthroughs to get where we want to be with indoor.” 

Moving from accuracy to reliability, the FCC has faced intense discussion around the widespread 911 failures following the June 2012 derecho storm. Avoidable planning and system failures were cited as contributing factors. A final report has been submitted to the Commission, and next steps are being considered. After Furth’s presentation, he opened the floor for questions. 

One audience member asked, “PSAPs are becoming an ecosystem unto themselves. Where is accountability in an outage with so many different players?” 

Furth assured her the FCC “sees themselves still being involved,” although they are unsure what role they will play. 

Again, there are still a lot of questions and unknown elements as public safety moves forward in this technological age. A common thread between the FCC and the public safety professionals in the room seemed to be providing reliable and accurate response to the emergency needs of the community. 

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