Hurricane Gustav spurs FCC communications system activation

As Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast over the Labor Day weekend, the Federal Communications Commission activated its new Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS) for the second time to let communications companies provide sensitive information online to government response planners.

DIRS is a voluntary Web-based system for operators of large communications networks to report the conditions of their infrastructure to FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The system was launched in September, largely in response to problems encountered three years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

This was the second time in little more than a week that the system was put into use. It was first activated Aug. 22 in response to Tropical Storm Fay, which caused extensive flooding in Florida.

Companies can access the system at www.fcc.gov/nors/disaster/ or by using the e-filing function on FCC's main Web page. Organizations that have not already registered with DIRS will be asked to provide contact information and obtain a user ID. The commission requests that DIRS participants provide contact details for those who would be providing information on the status of communications equipment in the event of a disaster, including a contact name, company name, phone number, cell phone number, BlackBerry or pager number, and e-mail address.

Information reported through DIRS is considered confidential and not subject to release through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Office of Management and Budget authorized the collection of information through DIRS in July 2007 on the recommendation of the Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks. FCC announced the launch of DIRS two months later. The condition of the communications infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Louisiana Coast almost exactly three years before Gustav made landfall, was a contributing factor in the disorganized response to Katrina.

Gustav, which was a Category 2 storm when it hit the Louisiana Coast Sept. 1, narrowly missing New Orleans, has been less destructive to heavily populated areas than Katrina but still has caused considerable damage due to wind and flooding.

DIRS includes templates for different communications sectors, such as wireless, wireline, broadcast and cable service providers. It collects information about the condition of switches, Enhanced 911 public safety answering points, interoffice facilities, cell sites, broadcast stations and cable TV systems. It also seeks data on restoration efforts; availability or commercial power, generators or battery power; and access to fuel. Communications companies are not required to report the information, but FCC uses it to help emergency responders in the area prepare for disaster conditions.

'Because the information that communications companies input to DIRS is sensitive, for national security and/or commercial reasons, DIRS filings shall be treated as presumptively confidential upon filing,' according to an FCC statement.

The information is not released publicly because of fears that information on weaknesses could aid terrorists or reveal proprietary information. FCC shares the information with the Homeland Security Department's National Communications System.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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