Fla. senator calls for nationwide 911 system modernization
Sen. Bill Nelson introduced legislation to modernize 911 systems by accelerating federal efforts to upgrade that crucial public safety infrastructure
By Teresa Stepzinski
The Florida Times-Union
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Three Northeast Florida police departments were among 29 Florida emergency 911 call centers that suffered impaired service in the days following Hurricane Irma, which also affected many others, federal authorities say.
The Federal Communications Commission in a recent report details the outages in portions of Florida, Alabama and Georgia, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Citing the FCC findings, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced legislation to modernize the nation’s 911 systems by accelerating federal efforts to upgrade that crucial public safety infrastructure.
Nelson’s bill filed Nov. 2 specifically calls for expanding an existing federal grant program designed to help state and local governments deploy next generation 911 systems.
He said upgrades — such as allowing callers to text their local 911 center for help, or send audio, video and photos during an emergency — are needed to help move the country’s largely analog 911 call centers into the digital age, which currently is dominated by the use of smartphones, tablets and other devices.
“Upgrading the nation’s 911 system is literally a life and death matter that must become more of a national priority,” Nelson said.
Given modern digital communications technology, “Americans must have more than one way to access the 911 assistance they need and expect when emergencies occur,” Nelson said.
“No plea for help should go unanswered because a call center doesn’t have the technology to receive a text, video or picture,” he said.
In addition to increasing federal support for next generation 911 deployment, Nelson’s legislation requires studies on how to better protect 911 systems from cyberattacks and make them more resilient to natural disasters or other catastrophes.
The FCC said the hurricane impaired, to some extent, the 911 systems of the Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and St. Augustine police departments.
Nine-one-one calls to those three agencies were re-routed with Automatic Location Information, according to the Sept. 12 FCC Communications Status Report for areas impacted by Hurricane Irma.
Atlantic Beach police officials say “there were no problems.” But as a precaution, they evacuated to a backup “Public-Safety Access Point” (PSAP) — a call center responsible for answering calls to an emergency telephone number for police, firefighting and ambulance services, said Cmdr. Tiffany Layson, police department spokeswoman.
Layson said that backup center was located farther inland in the event the hurricane’s impact was more severe than anticipated.
“The backup facility has full 911 equipment, phones, radio, etc. Rerouting is a routine procedure, so all that was necessary was to reroute the 911 calls to an alternate location,” Layson said.
She said it’s kind of like a “spare tire” for the Public-Safety Access Point.
“The same way we have a spare tire for our cars in case of emergency, we have a spare 911 site where we can handle calls without any interruption in service,” Layson said.
Layson also said any upgrades for the Atlantic Beach police 911 center resulting from Nelson’s bill would go through the Duval County 911 coordinator.
Other Florida emergency 911 call centers — many in South Florida — were more severely impacted. At one point, 14 call centers statewide were completely offline in Irma’s wake, according to the report.
The report also described the status of wireless communications services in the disaster area as of Sept. 12.
In Northeast Florida, the outage percentage for cellphone service by county was: Alachua, 15 percent; Baker, 9 percent; Bradford, 18 percent; Clay, 25 percent; Duval, 14 percent; Nassau, 22 percent; Putnam, 31 percent; and St. Johns, 14 percent, the report showed.
The statewide outage for cellphone service that day was about 25 percent, according to the report.
Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same area as Alabama, Florida and Georgia for the purposes of the FCC communications service status report following Hurricane Irma.
Significant 911 and cell phone service interuptions were documented for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were documented as a result of the hurricane, according to the report.
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