Senator McGuire’s bill to require reporting of 911 Emergency outages in rural communities moves forward

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Sacramento, CA – Californians have come to expect that when a major utility is down they’ll be informed and can easily access information about the outage, that it’s being responded to, and when service will likely be restored. It’s a core responsibility of providing service – whether the electricity goes out, or a gas line has a major leak, when the water stops flowing to a city or the sewer system has a major disruption – residents are informed.

That is, unless you live in rural California and a major telecommunications outage disrupts your emergency 911 service. Then there’s no level of communication that is required.

Today, Senator Mike McGuire’s bill that would require telecommunications providers to report rural 911 outages to local and statewide emergency officials was approved in its first Senate committee. The vote was bipartisan, 7-0. SB 1250 – the 911 Emergency Reliability and Public Safety Act would develop a statewide outage reporting threshold for rural California.

“Public health and safety is at risk when a simple fiber cut can lead to rural residents not being able to access an ambulance, the fire department or law enforcement. As it stands now, telecom companies don’t let emergency officials know when the local 911 system is not operating which puts lives in danger,” Senator Mike McGuire said. “To adequately provide rural residents the public safety they deserve, emergency responders have to be kept in the loop. There is a basic level of communication that must occur between the utility company, the customer base and the local government.”

Since 2014 along the North Coast, the 911 network went down at least five times, preventing residents the ability to both make and receive calls. 

During these outages, life threatening emergencies could not be responded to. For example: Neighbors threatened by a wildland fire couldn’t call out, emergency teams in Mendocino County were forced to position ambulances at highway intersections and operate off of an antiquated ham radio network in order to anticipate emergency response calls, the Coast Guard had to fly 24 hours straight patrolling the coast, electronic medical records couldn’t be accessed at health centers and hospitals, ATM machines went dark and millions of dollars were lost by local businesses.

To make matters worse, during one outage, for almost seven hours, there was no communication from AT&T with the Mendocino County Office of Emergency Service or the sheriff’s office. In fact, Senator McGuire had to inform the California Office of Emergency Services of the major outages in both September and December of 2015.

“In each of these cases, local emergency officials and neighbors had no idea why the service was down, no idea if the utility provider was responding, or if, and when it would be restored. Our rural residents deserve better, and that is why we have introduced this important legislation,” Senator McGuire said.

In large, more urban areas, similar outages would fall under the federal Network Outage Reporting System (NORS) threshold which requires telecommunication providers to report data and 911 outages. 

Having telecom providers contact the California Office of Emergency Services so that OES officials can provide counties with an update by satellite phone of the general location of the outage and its duration, will provide State and County Offices of Emergency Services critical information about the communication outage, increasing public health and safety. 

Testifying on behalf of SB 1250 were Mendocino County Emergency Services Coordinator Tami Bartolomei, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman and Regina Costa, Telecommunications Director at The Utility Reform Network. 

“Currently due to our low population density and high federal reporting thresholds, there is no requirement that a carrier notify the local, or state, Office of Emergency Services when a loss of 911 services occurs. This lack of simple notification is unacceptable as life safety is our highest priority,” Bartolomei said. “The quicker we can be notified that a communications outage has occurred and the extent of the outage, the quicker we can establish alternative emergency communications and take other actions to protect life and safety.”

Also in support of SB 1250 are: California Police Chiefs Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association, California Fire Chiefs Association, Fire Districts Association of California, California Professional Firefighters, Consumer Federation of California and American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, among others, including local counties and broadband associations.

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