FCC gets wired for disaster response

Agency launches Web database to report communications infrastructure damage

How FCC is improving its disaster response

The Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau launched the redesigned Disaster Information Reporting System to coordinate information about the communications infrastructure during crises.

The system was one of a number of recommendations made by an independent panel created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In May, FCC adopted an order directing the bureau to implement several of the panel’s recommendations.

Other recommendations include:

Creating readiness checklists for the communications industry’s various sectors.

Launching public safety education programs.

Improving coordination with state and local authorities.

Prepositioning communications equipment for first responders.

Improving the interoperability of first responders’ communications equipment.

Adopting best-practice recommendations for Enhanced 911.

— Ben Bain

The Federal Communications Commission is calling on industry to provide real-time updates on the communications infrastructure during a crisis to avoid some of the problems encountered during recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Through the redesigned Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), FCC is asking communications companies such as wireless, cable and wireline firms to voluntarily provide information about disruptions during a crisis. The agency will then share the company’s specific information only with the Homeland Security Department for situational awareness purposes. FCC said the individual company’s information will not be publicly released or shared.

FCC and DHS will use the information to inform federal, state and local emergency management agencies of the status of the communications infrastructure and coordinate with industry on repairs.

By revamping DIRS, FCC is addressing one of numerous recommendations an independent panel made in June 2006. The panel provided the FCC with suggestions on ways to improve its disaster preparedness and response.

In May, FCC adopted an order to implement some of the recommendations.

The new database will improve the speed and efficiency of the government in coordinating its efforts with industry to repair damage caused by a natural or man-made disaster, according to FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The agency formed the bureau in the aftermath of Katrina.

The new DIRS reporting design is central to streamlining efforts for getting communications back online for the public and first responders, who depend on the technology to coordinate disaster response, an FCC spokesman said.

“With the advances in communication technology you are finding in more and more cases as part of an emergency response, government communities, first responders and the health care community are turning to wireless communications such as Wi-Fi as well as other applications via the internet to respond to disasters,” he added.
Approved companies can access the database through the secure Web site, which requires a user name and password.

The willingness of communication providers to share information was crucial to the government’s ability to coordinate immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Paul Kurtz, the chief operating officer of Good Harbor Consulting. Kurtz also served on the White House’s National Security Council.

The DIRS database, which FCC launched Sept. 11, is different from the FCC’s Network Outage Reporting System.

NORS is designed for everyday situations and requires companies to verbally inform FCC of any outages immediately. Then the companies must provide a more detailed written report within 72 hours on the overall situation and how the company worked to resolve it. DIRS, meanwhile, looks at the immediate situation surrounding a crisis, focusing on what the needs are and how to respond to those needs, the spokesman said.

There is a long history of collaboration between the communications industry and the federal government, and there is no reason to think this will be any different, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.

“There is also clearly a political dimension,” Suss said. “The more the major players in the industry are able to demonstrate good faith in times of national emergency, the more they build up a pool of goodwill when they are looking for policy decisions that are important to the industry.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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