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APCO International’s Public Safety Communications Priorities for the New Year

By Jeff Cohen

In 2020, public safety communications professionals faced an extraordinary year, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, record-breaking natural disasters, and major civil unrest, in addition to their “routine” work protecting and saving lives.

From an advocacy perspective, 2020 was a mixed bag. We witnessed some progress with federal legislation, but there’s a lot more work to be done in the new Congress. And under the previous FCC leadership, we had an unusually difficult time, with APCO needing to challenge three public safety-related decisions, including one in federal court. We’ve certainly had disagreements with the FCC before, mostly over how aggressive to be in making improvements for public safety, but we never had to be concerned that FCC actions would have the potential to directly threaten public safety. 

Like Congress, the leadership and composition of the FCC is changing, and with that comes new opportunities to collaborate with the FCC and work with Congress to pass laws that will improve public safety communications. The following is a list of our legislative and regulatory priorities.

Legislative Priorities

1. Reclassification of 9-1-1 Public Safety Telecommunicators

What’s the issue?

The federal government’s catalogue of occupations, the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), categorizes 9-1-1 Public Safety Telecommunicators (PSTs) as an administrative/clerical occupation, but there is a much more appropriate “protective” category. The SOC is supposed to group occupations by the nature of the work performed. 9-1-1 professionals save and protect lives every day. Therefore, instead of being considered clerical personnel, they should be with the “Protective Service Occupations” – a broad group that includes several occupations that perform work that is less protective than PSTs’. 

What needs to be done?

The easiest path is for the new leadership of the Office of Management and Budget, which controls the SOC, to simply correct the SOC by reclassifying PSTs into the protective service category. This would come at no cost, promote good government by ensuring that the SOC is accurate, and signal the Administration’s recognition of the life-saving roles performed by PSTs.

As an alternative, legislation could direct OMB to fix the SOC. The 9-1-1 SAVES Act would do just that. In the prior session of Congress, this bill had strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate but was held up by the respective committees – House Education and Labor and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs – we believe based on a request from Department of Labor staff to maintain the status quo. In the new session of Congress, APCO will work with the original co-sponsors of the 9-1-1 SAVES Act to get this bill reintroduced quickly into both Houses of Congress, and vigorously pursue passage. 

2. Next Generation 9-1-1 Funding

What’s the issue?

The nation’s 9-1-1 networks are in dire need of modernization. 9-1-1 is reliable and widely available but is based on 50+ year-old technology and thus limited to voice calls and some texting capabilities. We need to deploy Next Generation 9-1-1 throughout the country, in a comprehensive, secure, innovative, cost-effective, and interoperable manner. This would enable 9-1-1 centers to receive and process voice, text, and multimedia content and share it with other 9‑1‑1 centers or with first responders in the field. While some states and jurisdictions are making partial progress towards NG9-1-1, these efforts are costly and proprietary, and do not support multimedia or interoperability.

What needs to be done?

A significant federal grant program is needed to spur nationwide deployment of NG9-1-1 in a secure, innovative, cost-effective, and interoperable manner. A broad coalition of national public safety associations has developed legislative language, building on earlier bills, to accomplish these goals. (See this separate blog for background on the coalition.) NG9-1-1 is a natural fit for any infrastructure bill, as 9-1-1 is the most critical of critical infrastructure. It is the lynchpin for public safety and national security, from the most local to the most widespread emergencies.

3. Wellness for 9-1-1 Professionals

What’s the issue?

Health and wellness is a huge challenge in 9-1-1, both physically and mentally. For example, research has shown that the stress of working in emergency communications dramatically increases the risk of suicidal thinking. Based on one study, approximately one in seven 9-1-1 professionals reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. That’s comparable to rates for fire/rescue and more than four times the rate in the general population. Dealing with this serious challenge to our community will require significant efforts, including raising awareness, creating guidance for mental health professionals, and supporting resources like peer support programs.

What needs to be done?

Dealing with such a significant problem will take an “all hands” approach. APCO will continue to pursue federal legislation that would help by establishing a nationwide approach for tracking suicide, developing wellness resources, and supporting resources like peer support programs specific to 9-1-1 professionals. 

4. Network Outages Impacting 9-1-1 Service

What’s the issue?

When network outages occur impacting the ability of service providers to deliver 9-1-1 calls, 9‑1‑1 center managers need to have immediate notice of the scope, nature, and anticipated duration of the outage in order to take action to protect their communities, such as advising the public to use a 10-digit number if 9-1-1 is unavailable. There are some basic regulatory requirements for notifications, but ECCs rarely get timely or actionable information. Sometimes they don’t get notified at all, and they are left to discover problems on their own and communicate what limited information they have to the public. APCO has repeatedly pressed the FCC, to no avail, to adopt rules to improve the outage information that is provided to ECCs. 

What needs to be done?

The FCC should adopt rules that require service providers to provide timely notifications of service outages impacting the ability of the public to contact 9-1-1, in an easily accessible format (like the maps used to track some electric utility outages).

Because the FCC’s prior leadership failed to act, APCO pursued a legislative approach that would direct the FCC to do this. Late last year, the House passed a bill, H.R. 5918, that would require the FCC to adopt rules that describe the circumstances in which service providers must submit notifications to ECCs about network disruptions that prevent the origination of 9-1-1 calls or the delivery of automatic location identification (ALI) or automatic number identification (ANI). Importantly, such notifications must be “timely” and in a format that’s “easily accessible” to facilitate ECCs’ situational awareness. A companion bipartisan bill, S. 4667, was introduced in the Senate. The House and Senate bills will need to be reintroduced and passed in the new Congress.

FCC Regulatory Priorities 

1. 9-1-1 Location Accuracy

What’s the issue?

9-1-1 professionals require actionable location information for 9-1-1 calls made indoors. Ideally, they would know the caller’s “dispatchable location,” meaning the correct building address, floor, and room or suite number. Back in 2015, following successful negotiations among APCO, NENA, and the nation’s major wireless carriers, the FCC established rules to accomplish just that. Unfortunately, through a combination of broken promises on the part of the wireless carriers, little is left of the promise of the 2015 rules. 

Rather than receive a dispatchable location, 9-1-1 professionals are poised to receive only a vertical location estimate expressed as a “Height Above Ellipsoid (HAE).” HAE is different from height above ground or sea level. For HAE to be used by ECCs, specialized software and maps for the millions of buildings throughout the United States would have to be developed – a questionable, significant, and costly undertaking. It might be possible for responders in the field to attempt to match the reported HAE with their own devices, but this process has not been tested, and the FCC has not analyzed if it would even be possible with the technologies available. 

At every turn, APCO and 9-1-1 directors from across the country asked the FCC to do better, and adopt stricter rules to at least require carriers to provide the floor label. APCO has repeatedly pointed out that several technologies could be leveraged to support the provision of dispatchable location, and some carriers are making initial efforts to deploy them voluntarily. We also filed a Petition for Clarification and a subsequent Petition for Reconsideration at the FCC pointing out major loopholes in the rules that carriers might exploit to avoid making any improvements to 9-1-1 location accuracy. 

Prior FCC leadership essentially ignored the issues raised in the Petition for Clarification and rejected the Petition for Reconsideration. We are months away from the FCC’s April 2021 location accuracy benchmark. Wireless carriers have signaled that they will not meet the accuracy requirements, but the FCC has declined to close loopholes or provide guidance on how ECCs should proceed when 9-1-1 location information is failing to meet expectations. 

What needs to be done?

The FCC should adopt reasonable rules to get 9-1-1 location back on track based on what 9-1-1 professionals truly need. This should include a requirement that a certain percentage of indoor calls are delivered with a dispatchable location and an expectation that carriers will leverage a variety of technologies, such as “5G Home” offerings.

2. 6 GHz Frequency Band

What’s the issue?

Public safety agencies throughout the country make extensive use of the 6 GHz frequency band for emergency dispatching, first responder radio communications, and connectivity with other jurisdictions. This is the only band that provides the reliability and interference-free coverage that public safety needs.

Despite significant technical debate and public safety concerns, the FCC voted to permit hundreds of millions of potentially interfering new devices to share this band. These devices are not licensed, and thus not easily trackable, and are expected to be just as ubiquitous as the Wi-Fi equipment presently found throughout homes and businesses.

APCO didn’t oppose sharing this band per se. But APCO reasonably asked the FCC to 1) ensure that real-world tests are conducted to inform the rules and measures for preventing/mitigating interference, and 2) require mechanisms to rapidly detect, identify, and eliminate any interference. The proponents of unlicensed devices argued that the risk of interference is small, but neither they nor the FCC expects zero interference to public safety communications. So we must ask – why wouldn’t the FCC or any of the manufacturers of these unlicensed devices want to conduct real-world tests to make sure they got the new rules right? Why shouldn’t the FCC adopt rules that require the immediate detection and elimination of harmful interference to public safety?

Unfortunately, the FCC ignored public safety concerns and opened the band, and is currently considering a proposal to further expand unlicensed use. Many concerns held by APCO and other incumbent users – for example, how much interference the new devices will cause and how it will be quickly eliminated – were punted to the industry to consider, with the FCC simply encouraging stakeholders to collaborate going forward. The “multistakeholder” group that formed has so far proved to be little more than an exercise in futility, with companies that will benefit from the FCC’s new rules resisting efforts to explore even basic questions such as whether the FCC’s assumptions on the potential for interference prove true in the real world. 

APCO was left with no other option than, for the first time in its history, to sue the FCC in federal court due to the potential for interference that will cause unrecoverable harm to public safety by operation of these new unlicensed devices. APCO, along with other aggrieved incumbents including in the utility, telecom, and broadcast industries, have filed an initial brief with the court. APCO will continue to ensure public safety’s perspective is represented in the litigation, which is expected to run well into 2021. In the meantime, APCO will closely monitor the situation and take every available action as new devices are introduced and there’s evidence of harm to public safety operations. We’ll also continue making a good-faith effort with the multistakeholder group in hopes that the companies pushing the new devices will accept their responsibility and stop blindly pushing a framework that threatens public safety.

What needs to be done?

The FCC should not adopt the proposed further expansion of unlicensed use of 6 GHz. And regardless of the outcome of the court appeal, the FCC should right its wrongs from the original expansion. As part of a sweeping funding law, Congress recently expressed concern that the new 6 GHz rules could result in interference to incumbent users and harm critical communications infrastructure. In March 2021, the FCC must deliver a report to Congress on its progress in “ensuring rigorous testing related to unlicensed use of the 6 GHz band.” The FCC should use this as an opportunity for a reset: it should pause any new authorizations of unlicensed devices and require testing and institute rules that protect public safety. We are very worried that it will soon be too late to reverse the harmful effects of this order, particularly as more and more of these new devices are unleashed into the consumer marketplace.

(Click here for a separate blog describing the status of the 6 GHz proceeding.)

3. 4.9 GHz Frequency Band

What’s the issue?

This band is uniquely suited to serve public safety’s exclusive spectrum for local broadband communications – Wi-Fi hot spots, fixed point-to-point connections, robot control, or bandwidth-intensive applications like high-resolution streaming video. But while the need is there, public safety hasn’t been able to make the most of this band because equipment costs are high, there are inadequate protections against interference, and the marketplace for devices is uncompetitive and sparse.

For many years, APCO, among other public safety groups, has been asking the FCC to make reasonable rule changes to enable public safety to make increased use of this band. Yet the FCC, in a divided vote, shocked the public safety community by adopting a recent order that effectively hands this band over to the states for commercial leasing, and removes any guarantees of interference-free and priority use of the spectrum by public safety. 

When the previous FCC Chairman made a draft of the order public, APCO joined numerous other major public safety associations in expressing strong opposition to the draft order and asking the Chairman to remove it from consideration and start over. Yet a narrow majority of the FCC nevertheless voted to approve this order. On December 29, APCO submitted a petition for reconsideration and intends to pursue formal options to undo these new rules.

What needs to be done?

The FCC should reverse course and adopt measures that the public safety community has recommended for increasing use of the band. Unlike the 6 GHz matter, the 4.9 GHz decision was split, and thus we are hopeful that the new FCC will promptly reverse course. 

4. Network Outage Reporting to 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Centers

What’s the issue?

When network outages occur impacting the ability of service providers to deliver 9-1-1 calls, 9-1-1 center managers need to have immediate notice of the scope, nature, and anticipated duration of the outage in order to take action to protect their communities, such as advising the public to use a 10-digit number if 9-1-1 is unavailable. There are some basic regulatory requirements for notifications, but ECCs rarely get timely or actionable information. Sometimes they don’t get notified at all, and they are left to discover problems on their own and communicate what limited information they have to the public. For years, the FCC’s prior leadership ignored APCO’s repeated requests to improve the outage information that is provided to ECCs, as well as suggestions to establish a two-way contact database for ECCs and service providers. 

What needs to be done?

The failure of the FCC to implement such basic requirements prompted APCO to pursue a legislative solution, and we will continue to press for such an outcome. But the FCC should take prompt action on its own to establish related rules.

5. Carrier/ECC Contact Database

What’s the issue?

In service provider/customer relationships, it is normal for service providers to ensure they know how to contact their customers, and that their customers know how to contact them, whenever a service problem arises. That should especially be the case when the service at issue is one of the most important services out there – connecting 9-1-1 calls to ECCs. Yet the wireless carriers responsible for delivering 9-1-1 calls to ECCs have continually refused to create this needed database. And the FCC’s prior leadership ignored APCO’s repeated calls for rules requiring service providers to create a secure, two-way contact database. When an outage occurs that impacts the ability of the public to reach 9-1-1 and/or communicate the caller’s phone number and location, carriers should know exactly who and how to contact the impacted ECCs. And when ECCs detect outages on their own, which happens often, they need to know how to immediately contact the relevant service provider.

What needs to be done?

The FCC must act to require wireless providers to promptly create a secure, two-way contact database. For example, this can take the form of a web-based portal that enables ECCs to populate and maintain their contact information (and a preference to be contacted via email, text, etc.) and for service providers to include ways to reach them 24/7/365. 

The FCC should not permit the carriers to transfer this responsibility and any associated costs to the public safety community. Doing so would set a bad precedent for service providers to seek to avoid additional responsibilities that rightfully belong to them. 

6. Wireless Emergency Alerts

What’s the issue?

Marginal enhancements have been made in recent years (longer message length, state/local testing, geotargeting, etc.), but the FCC has gone silent on the need to support multimedia in alerts (such as the photo of a missing child in an AMBER alert, or a photo of a dangerous suspect at large) and seems to be watering down the promised geotargeting improvement. Under the geotargeting rule, as of Dec. 13, 2019, new devices and devices capable of being upgraded are supposed to be limiting alert delivery to the target area plus 0.1 mile overshoot. (This change was supposed to eliminate the traditional problem of people receiving alerts that were only relevant for communities that were many miles away.) It seems that the FCC’s prior leadership either was letting carriers ignore the requirements or took a watered-down view of what it means to be capable of upgrading devices.

What needs to be done?

The FCC should hold carriers to the plain-reading of the geotargeting requirement, and add a requirement for alerts to support photos and other multimedia. 

7. Upgrades to Universal Licensing System

What’s the issue?

The FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) is the FCC’s official database for licensing spectrum. It contains extensive technical data such as transmitter and receiver locations, frequencies, bandwidths, antenna height, etc. Public safety frequency coordinators like APCO rely on ULS when determining which frequencies are suitable for a given need in a particular location. With the introduction of spectrum sharing technologies, ULS is likely to play a key role for making real-time determinations of what spectrum can be used in certain areas, and at what power level. The problem is that ULS is old, and it wasn’t designed for the modern era and real-time operational use cases. The system can be glitchy, and it isn’t always reliable. In fact, during one of the government-wide shutdowns during the last administration, ULS went dark altogether. That’s a big inconvenience if you’re an agency trying to get a new spectrum license, but it’s a recipe for disaster if ULS is being used to ensure dynamic spectrum sharing technologies avoid interfering with public safety systems. 

What needs to be done?

Modernizing ULS is a major undertaking that the FCC has been discussing for several years. The technology is available to improve reliability, access, and functionality, but the FCC needs a solid plan and dedicated resources to carry it out.  

You can contact APCO’s Government Relations Office with any feedback by emailing gro@apcointl.org.