Product Liability

Earthquake, hurricane expose limitations in emergency communications

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the nation’s capital last week exposed a serious flaw in the emergency reporting system – a heavy reliance on cell phone networks that become easily overloaded, making 9-1-1 inaccessible.

According to a Politico report, police and firefighters in the D.C. metro area were able to communicate in the aftermath of the earthquake, but the rest of the city’s residents had major problems with jammed lines. That means about two-thirds of the city’s population – the number of people the Federal Communications Commission estimates use cell phones to report emergencies — were unable to contact 911.

Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told Politico that his sister, a librarian, couldn’t get through to 911 when she called seeking an ambulance for a patron who was injured by falling ceiling tiles during the earthquake.

“[The earthquake] was a warning bell in the night that tells us there is something terribly wrong with 911. The whole point of 911 is to be able to get through,” Mr. Hundt told Politico.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, told CNN that the commission was “very concerned” that 911 calls were logjammed. “We want to make sure that people who need emergency help are able to get it,” Mr. Barnett said. “These are the moments when mobile phone service is needed most, and disruptions put lives at risk.”

One FCC official told Politico that the agency is communicating with wireless providers to understand the scope of the logjam and to address how it can be prevented from happening again in the future. Because wireless communication has evolved into an essential part of life that millions of people rely on, “if there are problems with that, it’s something we need to investigate,” the FCC told Politico.

Former chairman Hundt told Politico that during the earthquake, “the Internet worked. Twitter worked. But the Internet doesn’t have 911 service. Maybe what we ought to do is ask Facebook to provide the 911 service.”

As funny as that may sound, it’s actually in line with the FCC’s plans. Current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently unveiled the commission’s plans to introduce next generation 911 services that will enable people to send texts and images to 911 emergency dispatchers.

So far there haven’t been any reports of a similar wireless logjam occurring during Hurricane Irene’s strike on the East Coast, likely because the storm was expected and affected a much larger area over the course of days. Still, though, the trend toward alternative forms of emergency reporting was evident in some places.

In Connecticut, for instance, 911 wasn’t overloaded but internet communications apparently were. Connecticut Light & Power urged its customers to call 911 to report any dangerous situations involving downed wires or equipment. “We cannot track these issues through Twitter,” the company said. Another message the company posted advised its consumers: “We’re having technical difficulties due to the amount of texts we’re receiving. Thanks for your patience.”

D.C. earthquake concern: Why didn’t cellphones work?
FCC to investigate cell phone logjam after earthquake