DENVER – In the wake of 911 outages in Southwest Colorado and throughout the state, lawmakers are looking at the future of the system and how to regulate it.
A legislative committee is examining the issue, which gained steam this summer after reports of outages, including one in June that began in Montrose County and spread to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Cortez and Durango. People were impacted from Grand Junction to the Southern Ute reservation.
A line was damaged by a bullet after someone fired at a cable that provided for 911 traffic.
For three weeks, people in the area were periodically unable to use 911, in some cases for as long as 10 hours.
Emergency communications centers from across the state recently filed complaints with the Public Utilities Commission after the outages in June and July. The Durango-La Plata Emergency Communications Center was among the agencies that complained.
Many blame CenturyLink, the state’s primary basic emergency service provider. CenturyLink declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
The system in Colorado is unlike most other states in that local jurisdictions are responsible for their 911 systems, rather than a statewide authority.
There are 57 authorities in Colorado, resulting in a patchwork 911 system.
The discussion of how to regulate that dispersed system comes as the state also considers updates in technology, including a statewide first-responder communications system that would provide a priority network for officials.
In the June outage, operators found it difficult to coordinate with fellow operators from each of the impacted agencies.
The Public Utilities Commission requires service providers to report outages exceeding 30 minutes, though 911 managers say it is difficult to enforce the mandate. In the case of the June and July outages, agencies said they were not notified in a timely manner, and in some instances, neighboring emergency centers notified one another.
“We have a responsibility to tell our citizens of alternate means to request emergency services when they can’t call 911,” said Monica Million, operations manager for the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center and chairwoman of the PUC’s 911 Advisory Task Force.
Outages tend to plague rural parts of the state more than urban centers, as it is more costly and difficult to add cable redundancy in rural areas.
“Those citizens still feel it’s their right to have 911 service, no matter how far out they want to live,” Million said.
Regulation questionsMuch of the conversation is tied to telecommunications deregulation efforts two years ago in Colorado, when the Legislature updated the state’s decades-old laws.
Lawmakers deregulated Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, such as phone calls over the internet, as well as basic telephone service.
It was expected that 911 would remain regulated, but then the Legislature this year considered legislation that first responders felt would lead to deregulation by tying the hands of the PUC.
Telecom providers argue that the system can regulate itself, as consumers would complain and providers would take corrective action. It is a more free market approach.
The Legislature considered a bill that would have prohibited the PUC from expanding its authority over emergency calls. The bill would have clarified that the PUC’s authority is limited to 911 calls that are not carried over mobile phones or VoIP, such as landlines, which represent only a small portion of emergency calls in the state.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office urged the PUC to drop a plan to expand oversight, and the PUC agreed to indefinitely suspend its rule-making.
Telecom companies say operations fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, and they threatened lawsuits if Colorado expanded its rules.
Throngs of first responders lined up in the Legislature to urge lawmakers to halt efforts to ban the PUC from expanding its oversight. The Legislature agreed to study the issue before making bigger changes.
“First responders said you’ve got to have 911 regulated because if they don’t know there’s a problem, and there’s an outage, they can’t respond, they can’t do their job,” said Kelli Fritts, associate Colorado director of AARP, which led opposition to the legislation.
New technology consideredThe legislative committee held its first meeting Wednesday, in which lawmakers not only discussed outages but also technology.
The state is looking toward Next Generation 911, which replaces analog 911 systems with digital broadband networks. The governor’s office also wants to create an IP-based network, called an Emergency Services Network.
The goal is to create a First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, a system dedicated for use by first responders. The high-speed network would facilitate communication for first responders in the event of emergencies. It would be available to first responders and 911 agencies statewide.
First responders currently use a trunked radio system in Colorado. FirstNet would move toward broadband communication.
The problem with using cellular networks now is that first responders are competing on commercial networks, which are usually the first to go down in an emergency. Even during large events – such as the Denver Broncos Superbowl parade in Denver – cellular networks were shut down by overuse.
“If we are really going to have first responders rely on this technology moving forward, we have to create a network that has the same reliability and the same functionality and is hardened the same way our current radio system is,” said Brian Shepherd of the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, the office that is overseeing FirstNet.
With most emergency calls now coming from non-landlines, a focus on technology has become critical. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of emergency calls are made from non-landlines in Colorado.
“We need a lot more information and a lot more facts, which we hope this committee can provide in a very objective way,” said House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder. “Every Colorado resident should have the ability to access emergency services.”