“Job No. 1 for the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] is public safety,” were FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s opening remarks from the podium at the Miami-Dade Emergency Management Center.
Commissioner Clyburn joined FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Monday for a meeting with South Florida public safety officials and broadcasters to discuss the importance of first responders and the public during storms and other emergencies.
Pai commended Florida’s first responders and emergency call-center technicians and workers, who he said managed triple the usual traffic in the hours before, during and after hurricane Irma.
“It was incredibly inspiring to hear how many dispatchers -- how many call-takers -- stayed and worked really long shifts, some of whom slept in their office spaces in order to make sure that people were connected with people who could help,” he said.
Pai also lauded radio and television broadcasters for putting crucial information out during hurricane Irma and its aftermath. “Sometimes, quite literally, they are the lifeline to people in those communities,” he said.
He relayed the story of one radio broadcaster in the Keys who worked tirelessly to keep his station up and running through Irma’s wrath. “He literally risked his life by trying to keep the transmitter up while the storm was at its peak,” said Pai.
Radio and television listenership and viewership go up dramatically during storms like Irma, especially when internet and wireless service is compromised – or goes down completely. That was certainly an issue here during Irma, on a far larger scale than in the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey.
“I was just in Texas and I saw that approximately 5 percent of the cell sites went down there,” said Pai.
In contrast, a week ago nearly half of the cell towers in South Florida were down. At one point, more than a quarter (27 percent) of the state’s 14,502 cell towers were inoperative, according to the FCC. Pai said that’s because of the strength of Irma’s wind, and the fact that power outages were widespread. He said that better planning for reliable sources of backup power will be crucial to improving cell service during and after future storms.
Another potential solution could be activating the FM chip in smartphones. The FM chip, which allows users to tune in an FM radio signal even when cell service is not working, is commonly used by wireless customers outside the United States. Nearly every cellphone in the U.S. actually has an FM chip, but the majority of them are disabled by wireless carriers.
“I’ve strongly encouraged the wireless carriers to activate that functionality,” Pai said.
Could the FCC go further than simply encouraging? “There’s some legal questions about the FCC’s authority,” said Pai. “We’re gonna keep using the bully pulpit as best we can.”
Pai said that lessons learned during Monday's visit will help the FCC improve the performance of public safety networks during future emergency events. But they’d better hurry applying those lessons. As Commissioner Clyburn pointed out, we’re already monitoring and preparing for the next storm.