Congress presented with shocking E911 MLTS report by GSA

After a three-year delay, the GSA reports federal MLTS systems are mostly not compliant with direct dial 911

After ignoring a Congressional directive for more than three years, as well as an FCC commissioner’s direct request, the General Services Administration (GSA) finally produced a report on the status of 911 dialing in federal buildings. Despite the long delay, the content and quality of the report were disappointing at best.

On Feb. 22, 2012, the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 was passed as Public Law 112-96. As with many bills, the law covered a broad array of topics, one of them being the establishment of a national public safety broadband network expanding high-speed wireless broadband and improving communications interoperability among first responders. Within this section, the law also required that the GSA audit and produce a report on the 911 capabilities of multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) used in the almost 10,000 federal buildings and facilities under their control.

The GSA report

The GSA was given nine months to complete the audit and then deliver a status report outlining their findings to Congress. That report was due Nov. 18, 2012, and should have included an inventory of facilities and the 911 calling capabilities that existed in them. There was no requirement to correct any found deficiencies or invest in capital equipment or software. The report was intended to assess the risk to federal employees in federal buildings. Unfortunately, no report was produced, and the ability to summon emergency services by federal employees in federal facilities remained unknown as the November deadline slipped by unnoticed. 

Fast-forward a year later: 1,200 miles away in a Marshall, Texas, hotel room, Hank Hunt loses his daughter Kari in a tragic murder. During the horrific confrontation, Hank’s 9-year-old granddaughter attempted to dial 911 four times to reach help for her mother but was met with what she describes as "static." After the event, Hank started on his mission to educate MLTS telephone system owners, as well as advocate for state initiatives and legislation requiring the direct access to 911 and on-site notification, features many MLTS have built in but are often left turned off by installers.

In January 2014, I was asked to meet with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and his staff to discuss MLTS 911 technology and what could be done to prevent further similar tragedies. The commissioner’s research instigated a test of the FCC’s MLTS system. Attempting to dial 911 from his office, Commissioner Pai stated, “When you pick up a phone and dial 911, this is what you hear: ‘Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please consult your directory and call again or ask your operator for assistance. This is a recording.’”

Forget the beef, where's the report?

Clearly, this deficiency would, and should have been evident had the GSA took the Congressional order seriously and the audit report been produced. Frustrated over the missing report, on March 11, 2015, Commissioner Pai wrote to Denise Turner Roth, Acting Administrator of the GSA, inquiring about the existence of the report. In this inquiry, Turner Roth was asked for either a copy of the report or a status when she would complete the report. In response, the only thing the commissioner got from his inquiry was identical to the report itself: "radio silence." 

Several others, in addition to the commissioner, made requests to the GSA for this document, including myself, reporters from Texas and Hank Hunt. Finally, after nagging, on June 29, 2016—1,319 days, or three years and seven months—after the initial due date, Hank finally received the GSA's report, along with copies of letters indicating it was delivered to Congress on Feb. 29, 2016, fulfilling the GSA duties of Public Law 112-96.

After several years of work, and 10,000 facilities to review, you would expect a substantial and voluminous report. What did the report include? Twenty pages of mostly filler and fluff, including information not even relevant to the inquiry, such as ANI/ALI Tariff charges from the various local exchange carriers and a detailed summary of how ALI works, complete with graphics produced by myself over six years ago. It looks to be the work of an intern and a few Google inquiries. The information that was supposed to be there was mostly missing. Instead of the nearly 10,000 federal facilities listed, only a sparse index of 84 locations where reported. Of these 84 buildings listed, direct 911 dialing worked in less than 18 percent of the systems—despite the fact that at least 90 percent or more of them were capable of the functionality based on their manufacturer. Additionally, On-Site Notification, a feature also built into nearly every MLTS PBX reported, was not activated in any of the systems. In fact, it was noted that a separate phone call must be placed to notify building security advising them of any 911 activity.

History repeats itself

Once again, history has proven that the E911 problem knows no boundaries. It affects schools, businesses, hotels and any other commercial facility using a multi-line telephone system.

Admittedly, while surveying the 9,600 properties under the control of GSA was a large complex task, the mandate was to produce a report on the scope and expanse of the problem, not provide any remediation tasks. It is only with this report that the risk can be understood and then an assessment made. If nothing else, awareness of the problem would have been raised, and each new federal facility opened or upgraded in the past three years should have had this requirement addressed. The problem is well known and documented, and to ignore it at this point is simply foolish and borderline egregious.

Fix it for free

If the GSA is responsible for facilities and the technology, I am certain this would also include maintenance coverage for "break-fix" issues that come up from time to time. I will offer the point of view that if my phone system will not dial 911 effectively and report the proper information to local emergency services personnel, then that system is broken and should be fixed. Based on this, that would be a maintenance issue and not even incur any extra cost. The glaring lack of compliance for basic emergency calling underscores the need for compliance education and legislative mandate.

In addition to the GSA being responsible for implementing this functionality, where is the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)? Why doesn’t the GAO, the "Congressional watchdog," look into this issue and require the GSA maintain a compliant solution? And why was it so difficult to get such a simple report of the problem?

Time and time again, it has been proven that technology is not the roadblock, the cost of remediation is clearly not the roadblock, and the availability of education is not the roadblock. It all comes down to the legislative mandate and the desire to provide a safe communications infrastructure for employees, customers and guests. The U.S. government needs to set an example for compliance with this initiative internally as a role model for others to follow.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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