Public Safety, Critical Infrastructure Highlight Importance of Backup Power in Disasters
Tuesday, November 09, 2021 | Comments
Public safety, business and critical infrastructure officials emphasized the importance of backup power and collaboration between wireless providers and energy providers during a field hearing on disaster communications that was a part of the FCC’s October 26 meeting.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said it is important that the FCC learn as much as possible whenever communications outages and field hearings provide a strong outlet for that.

“Because we know that another storm will come,” she said. “It’s not just hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. We have seen snowstorms in Texas and fires blazing out west. We know there will be more events that test our communications infrastructure. And, I believe it’s time to better prepare our networks for the future. To do that, we must investigate aggressively, follow the facts wherever they may lead, and find out what went right and what went wrong.”

Rosenworcel highlighted for areas that need the FCC’s attention right now:
• The ability to use all available infrastructure to connect as many people as possible when disaster strikes
• Promotion of better situational awareness during disasters to ensure life-saving
information is communicated to all stakeholders in an emergency
• Better preparation for power outages and the impacts they have on communications
• Promotion of equity in disaster recovery

Harold Field, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, highlighted the importance of ensuring all the responsible parties in an emergency are communicating effectively.

“We no longer rely solely on the broadcast Emergency Alert System for critical real-time updates or 9-1-1,” he said. “We depend on internet access to provide important information during a crisis and its aftermath. Maintaining/restoring voice communications, or voice and text, is not enough. Local governments and first responders use websites and social media to keep people informed, especially when wildfires require sudden and immediate evacuation of specific geographic areas.”

Field noted that while local and state first responders are always innovating as they face new threats, much of the mentality around network resilience is still old fashioned and the industry must change that mindset to better adapt to the modern communications world.

“We are struggling to address backup power to cell towers — an issue identified by the FCC’s post-Katrina report more than 15 years ago,” he said. “We have done virtually nothing on power in the premises since the commission’s rulemaking five years ago, which resulted in rules that numerous advocates considered inadequate then, and even more so now. Power utilities continue to act as if landline systems are self powered, and coordination between power utilities and communications providers is so poor that one source of outages post disasters is power crews cutting or removing replacement fiber lines.”

Field provided some recommendations including:
• Expand the FCC’s Wireless Emergency Framework to all communications providers, including broadcasters, public safety and utility services
• Make the framework mandatory for all wireless carriers
• Make emergency voice, short message service (SMS) and data roaming mandatory for all carriers on a bill-and-keep basis
• Revisit the backup power rules
• Use modern spectrum technology to improve spectrum for emergency purposes
• Create standards and metrics in partnership with state regulators

Jeff Johnson, the executive chief of the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) and former First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) vice chair, detailed the importance of broadband in responding to the many disasters that agencies contend with. He cited technologies such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that allow agencies to detect fires before they get large and situational technologies that give commanders better insights into a disaster.

“In order for first responders to actually utilize these advanced solutions, they need to be able to count on the technology and underlying network performing in operationally critical situations,” Johnson said. “It is essential for emergency response personnel to have reliable access to broadband and the correspondingly essential resilient commercial power grid and backup power sources.”

He noted that public-safety wireless applications should be built in accordance with standards such as the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards to ensure quality performance, interoperability and reliable operation. Johnson touted the ability of the FirstNet network, which is being deployed and operated by AT&T in partnership with the FirstNet Authority, in helping provide interoperability and strong communications for public safety.

Johnson pointed to Hurricane Ida, which struck Louisiana and knocked out power to communications across the state in August, as an example why networks should be built to best practices for resiliency, redundancy and hardening.

“Even when these best practices are followed, however, a natural disaster (at the scale of Hurricane Ida or a massive conflagration) will unavoidably cause damage to infrastructure that may lead to service disruptions,” he said. “It is therefore essential for communications operators, including FirstNet, to prepare, train and be ready to swiftly restore damaged infrastructure, so normal operation can be achieved as quickly as possible. The speed of communications infrastructure restoration is one of the success stories from Hurricane Ida, showcasing there have been lessons learned since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”

Johnson also stressed the importance of ensuring proper backup power for communications networks, as noted by recent public-safety power shutdowns in California intended to prevent forest fires. He noted that the WFCA is working with lawmakers and others in California for streamlining the process of siting backup power facilities.

“Local and state siting rules, environmental and other regulations governing the placement of backup power generators can make it exceedingly difficult to get this equipment installed at communication towers,” he said. “This is not unique to California and is an issue that hinders backup generator placement at sites in jurisdictions across the country. The Federal Communications Commission should consider preemptive siting and environmental streamlining rules to make it easier for these backup power facilities to be installed.”

Captain Jack Varnado of the Livingston Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff’s Office described the challenges that his organization faced during Hurricane Ida. The night of August 29, the sheriff’s department discovered that its 9-1-1 ANI/ALI circuits, which provide location information and callback numbers for 9-1-1 callers was down.

“The degradation and loss of critical voice and 9-1-1 routing circuits would continue for the next couple of hours until all of our 911 system was ‘down,’” Varnado said. “Emergency reroutes were implemented to our administrative lines as per our pre-plans so we could still get some 9-1-1 voice calls, mostly from wireless callers.”

The parish’s 9-1-1 system was not fully restored until two days later and additional outages occurred due to generators running out of fuel or cable cuts that occurred when streets were being cleared of debris.

Varnado expressed frustration that the county’s service provider, AT&T, had not adequately hardened its network to prevent such an outage after outages that occurred from hurricanes in 2005 and 2008.

“AT&T could and should work with the local emergency operations centers to ensure that critical facilities are powered, and if they need fuel, especially during the short-term, they should call,” Varnado said. “When we discovered that some of our 9-1-1 system was going down due to AT&T’s generators running out of fuel, several days after the storm, Sheriff Ard instructed me to let AT&T know that if they needed fuel to call me because we would have been able to lend the fuel truck servicing our generators to immediately fuel these other critical generators. This source of outages could have been easily avoided, and issues like this must be addressed in the future.”

Janet Britton, general counsel of REV Broadband, detailed some of the strategies the company used to restore and keep services operating during Hurricane Ida’s hit on Louisiana.

First, she said, it is important for network providers to heed warnings and prepare for the worst. This allows network providers to keep employees safe while also resuming operations as soon as possible.

“Of course, this is complicated when employees might not even have homes to return to for months at a time or at all because of the widespread devastation of the disaster,” she said. “Being prepared as a provider to supply the basics for employees – food, water, and even housing – is critical to rapid response and sustained efforts thereafter.”

Second, communications wireless providers should expect disruptions in the supply.

“We are seeing significant strains in the telecom supply chain right now, with orders taking longer than ever to fulfill and costing more,” Britton said. “This is a ‘macro’ issue that affects all kinds of telecom operations, including but not limited to efforts to replace storm-damaged equipment.”

Third, coordination among companies is critical to avoid making problems worse.

“As communications providers, we need help from the power companies and must coordinate closely during restoration,” she said. “But this must go beyond simple communication; for example, in the rush to restore power, it is important that power companies not make matters worse by cutting intact fiber that is in place or otherwise taking down operational communications facilities in the process of tree trimming or installing replacement poles.”

Finally, Britton said that there should be support for building resilient networks. She noted that some of REV’s subsidiaries deployed aerial facilities, such as hanging fiber, because they could not afford while others were able to deploy more expensive buried cable.

Britton said that the experiences of Hurricane Ida showed why the more expensive option can be the better option because it better protects the network.

“REV believes this case study shows why it is so important to plan ahead and to look at the efficiency of a network over its anticipated lifespan, rather than defining efficiency merely by reference to the initial deployment costs of a network,” she said.

Louis Dabdoub, the director of incident response for Entergy, an electrical provider, emphasized the importance of improved collaboration between telecommunications companies and energy providers in planning for dealing with and restoring communications outages.

He noted that following the 2020 hurricane season, Entergy began working with the Edison Electrical Institute to align with other members who may have experienced similar restoration issues and develop a unified action plan. Additionally, the company revised its storm response plan to better align personnel and reinforce training in the response to the storm.

“We acknowledge this is an important and continuous endeavor and stand committed to working with other critical infrastructure restoration workers, such as telecommunications companies, within our storm-impacted areas,” Dabdoub said.

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