Lessons From The Derecho 9-1-1 Failure: When Industry Self-Regulation Is Not Enough.

The FCC released a fairly thorough report on the widespread 9-1-1 failure that followed the June 2012 “derecho” windstorm. For those who don’t remember, the derecho differs from most weather events by coming up almost without warning. According to the report, carriers had approximately two hours of warning from the time the derecho started in the Ohio Valley to when it hit the D.C. Metro region.


As a consequence of the damage done by the derecho, Northern Virginia experienced a massive failure of its 9-1-1 network, leaving over 1 million people with working phones (at least in some places) but no access to 9-1-1.  West Virginia experienced systemic problems as well, as a did a scattering of locations in other states impacted by the derecho. Verizon maintains the network in Northern Virginia, while West Virginia is managed by Frontier.


In both cases, the report concluded that both Verizon and Frontier failed to follow industry best practices or their own internal procedures. To be clear, this was not a massive dereliction of duty. But the accumulation of some corner cutting over here, some poor practice over there, meant that when the unpredicted crisis hit the system suffered critical failures precisely when most needed. Unlike just about every other part of the network, where providers balance the cost of hardening a network against potential events with a number of other factors, the core 9-1-1 system is explicitly supposed to remain operational in even the most extraordinary circumstances.  It is the foundation of public access to emergency services. As long as I can contact the phone network, I should be able to get 9-1-1 service. Public safety responders rely on the public reporting emergencies so that they can efficiently deploy resources as much as the public depends on its ability to contact emergency services through 9-1-1.

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