After derecho, Fairfax County seeks to avoid 911 failures

WASHINGTON — The derecho that knocked out power across the Washington region for days in 2012 is having an impact on changes to 911 emergency service across the country, and Fairfax County is trying to shape those changes to include plans to handle video chats with 911 operators.

In comments to the Federal Communications Commission, approved by the County Board Tuesday, the county urges the FCC not to set national certification requirements for 911 services, but instead to lay out a set of best practices that states, counties and cities can follow to make sure everyone who needs to reach 911 can get through.

Right now, there are a number of suggestions from various groups, but the county says there is no way to know which suggestions will actually help most.

“At a minimum, Fairfax County recommends that the…standard be initially defined to include requirements for Reliability and Resilience, Service Level Agreements, and Operational Reporting and Alarm,” the county writes in comments to the FCC.

The county also wants to make sure that more than the ability to text 911 is covered in next generation 911 systems — the county also wants to enable video chats or other modes of communication.

“[C]ommunications between emergency requestors and [911 call centers] will potentially involve more multi-media interactions than are presently possible in most [911 call centers] due to the presence of older technology. As [911 call centers] are upgraded with N[ext]G[eneration]9-1-1 capable equipment, more multi-media data, such as pictures and streaming video of emergency scenes, will be transmitted along with the traditional voice communications,” the county writes.

While the county wants the FCC to push for federal funding to help with nationwide 911 upgrades, Fairfax does not want any federal mandates.

Fairfax County’s 911 call center is the largest in Virginia, and among the top ten largest in the nation. It gets about one million calls each year for service across the county, as well as on Fort Belvoir, and in the city of  Fairfax.

The derecho knocked out 911 service for more than one million people in Northern Virginia after a failure in Verizon service. The FCC called the failure “unacceptable”.

A year later, Fairfax County and Verizon said changes had already begun.

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