WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Wednesday proposed new rules for telecommunications firms to strengthen their 911 emergency systems in response to what the agency said were "avoidable" outages during a freak windstorm in 2012.
The unpredictable windstorm, known as a derecho, last year knocked out emergency services and caused major breakdowns that affected millions of people in six states, leaving many 911 calls unanswered as 77 emergency response call centers lost some degree of service and 17 went completely off-line.
The Federal Communication Commission's follow-up analysis found that disruptions were caused by "avoidable planning and system failures, including the lack of functional backup power" and insufficient audits.
The FCC voted unanimously on Wednesday to propose rules that would require phone companies to do better audits of 911 circuits, more promptly notify emergency workers when the network is down, ensure backup power for the main offices, and complete regular and more complete maintenance and testing.
The regulators now will collect comments on the new rules, seeking particularly to mitigate any concerns about the costs of adopting the procedures and thoughts on possibly adding a so-called "sunset provision" for when the rules would expire to avoid having outdated regulations on the books.
In the report on 911 outages during the summer derecho, FCC researchers noted that while the windstorm knocked out emergency services in isolated areas of four states, it caused especially serious breakdowns in northern Virginia and West Virginia.
Verizon Communications Inc provides 911 service in Virginia, and Frontier Communications Corp is the service provider in West Virginia.
Similarly, major disruptions affected people later in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy smashed into New York and New Jersey in late October, and the FCC has held hearings where they urged improvements to stability of telecom firms' 911 services.
"Our policy has to be zero tolerance for outages," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said on Wednesday.