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Better Communication in Disasters – One Step Closer

[correction: the FCC clarified the code to be entered when commenting on the petition.  Entering the code in the earlier version of my post resulted in an error message.  If you did try to comment and received the error message, please try again with the correct code: RM-11327.]

   

Today the Federal Communications Commission put the petition which Jeff Pulver and I filed up for public comment.  This is a step towards using our experience post Hurricane Katrina to mitigate some of the worst effects of communications outages in future disasters. Frankly, it is a step we were afraid the FCC wouldn’t take so it’s great that they did this on a timely basis – before the next hurricane season.

The public comment period- which ends April 27 - is a time when you can easily weigh in either to support the simple proposal we made, to improve it, or to oppose it if you feel that it is bad public policy.  To comment, just go to http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/upload_v2.cgi.  The “proceeding ID” to be entered in the first line is RM-11327.  You just need to enter several sentences – lots of hints below in this post – to give reasons for your position.

During Katrina it was nearly impossible for evacuees to be located either by friends and family outside the stricken area or by each other. Families in different shelters couldn’t reunite.  Parents didn’t know where their children were or whether they were even alive and vice versa. 

Red Cross and other relief workers spent much precious time on refugee-location.  Rescue workers risked their own lives searching for people who had already been evacuated but were not locatable.  Rescue efforts couldn’t be focused on the many who actually did need help because so many were simply missing.

People who had voice mail were quickly back in touch even if their physical phone lines were drowned or unreachable because of evacuation orders.  Even if they couldn’t take calls, they could leave announcements saying they were safe and where to locate them.  Phone numbers are a very good way to locate people.  Names, it turns out, are not.

Well-to-do people have cell phone with voice mail, VoIP phones, or have voice mail associated with their landline phone numbers.  Many poor people do not.  It is these people who took so long to locate after the disaster.  In some cases people may have disobeyed evacuation orders because they didn’t want to leave a working phone and become unreachable.

Almost every phone company including traditional carriers like BellSouth – the local phone company of New Orleans – and VoIP carriers has a voicemail product and call forwarding capability.  Our petition requests that all phone companies who are currently required to provide E911 service also be required to make voicemail and call-forwarding available to ALL their customers any time those customers phones are inoperable or unusable (as in an evacuation) for more than twelve hours. It requires these companies to certify that they have told their customers how to activate emergency voicemail and call forwarding and given them PINs or some other reasonably secure method for emergency activation.

The petition also says that any carriers which is found not to have complied in an emergency be required to immediately port customer’s phone numbers to any service provider designated by the customer.  During Katrina, a number of companies – mainly but not only VoIP carriers – offered to provide free voice mail to evacuees for the duration of the emergency but there was no mechanism for quickly porting the subscribers’ numbers, especially out of territory.

No new technology is required to make this work.  The expense should not be significant either although carriers have yet to weigh in on this and will have an opportunity to point out what the costs may be.

So far, no opposition to this plan has surfaced. On the other hand, neither BellSouth or any other major local phone company has voluntarily taken these disaster-mitigation steps.  Frankly, it’s hard for me to understand why.  Most cellular and VoIP carriers in the US bundle voice mail with their basic service so they are effectively already in compliance.  Moreover, cellular and VoIP phone can be taken from the area of disaster to somewhere else and service continues with the same phone number.

If the FCC grants this petition, customers of  traditional landline phone companies will have the same continuation of vital service that users of cellular and VoIP phones have.  Most importantly, if the FCC grants this petition, evacuees will quickly be locatable; evacuations will meet less resistance; and relief and rescue workers can concentrate of those truly in danger.

Please do comment to the FCC.  If you’re a blogger, please consider using your blog to encourage people to comment on this petition.  Comments are due by April 27, 2006.  Click here to comment now.  Remember that the proceeding ID to be entered in the first line is RM-11327.

Thank you.

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