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Nature’s toll on communications
Finally, the weather often makes the news, and 2012 was no exception. In October, “Superstorm Sandy” hit the Northeast like no other in recent memory. Complaints were voiced regarding the number of duplicate calls dispatched by New York City’s 9-1-1 system during this event, but given the fact that about 20,000 telephone calls per hour were being processed, this has to be taken in context.
Many of the take-aways from this event involved social media. These included the need to plan for a protracted and immediately available online presence to the pervasive power of digital disinformation; such as false reports that a stock exchange floor was underwater. From the private sector, about 25% of cell phone towers and 25% of cable service in 10 states were lost shortly after landfall. Even customers having working wireless networks had to find a place to power up their phones. Carriers in New York established recharging stations for this purpose, and private citizens and businesses not suffering outages placed power strips outside for neighbors or passersby.
In June, the so-called “derecho” storm hit the mid-Atlantic region, causing widespread disruption of 9-1-1 and prompting a Congressional sub-committee hearing. Dispatch centers near the nation’s capital were among the hardest hit, with widespread and prolonged service disruptions experienced. Among the concerns raised were the need for better and more frequently tested backup telephone power systems and improved monitoring and oversight that would allow for timely assessment of potential major outages.
In a report released in January 2013, the FCC concluded, “The effects of the storm revealed considerable flaws in system design, personnel management, policies, and procedures of the primary providers of the 9-1-1 networks in the affected region. The storm also revealed that the major wireline providers serving the affected region had not fully implemented best practices and industry-developed solutions relating to backup power, 9-1-1 circuit diversity, and 9-1-1 trunk design – issues with a direct link to the loss of 9-1-1 service after the “derecho.” Accordingly, the bureau recommends that the commission, while continuing to promote use of vital best practices, consider taking additional action to ensure the reliability of the communications infrastructure, especially with respect to 9-1-1 service.
Regardless of whether it was lessons learned from natural disasters or the culmination of long-term regulatory agendas, 2012 will be remembered as a watershed year for fire service communications. Decisions made will have a lasting impact on how we answer and dispatch calls and eventually communicate with one another. n