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U.S. mulls tougher rules on telecom firms to keep 911 running

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators may require telecommunications companies to do a better job of safeguarding the 911 systems that are used to call for emergency help, according to an official at the Federal Communications Commission.

The agency criticized some 911 providers for suffering outages that resulted from "avoidable" problems as basic as a lack of backup power, following a freak 2012 storm .

Emergency 911 services were disrupted for large numbers of people twice in 2012 - once when an unpredictable windstorm called a derecho swung through the center of the country to the Mid-Atlantic coast on June 29, and again when Superstorm Sandy smashed into New York and New Jersey in late October.

The FCC, in the summary of a report on 911 outages during the derecho, noted that the powerful winds knocked out emergency services in isolated areas of four states but caused serious breakdowns in northern Virginia and West Virginia.

Verizon Communications Inc provides 911 service in Virginia while Frontier Communications Corp is the service provider in West Virginia.

"9-1-1 communications were disrupted in large part because of avoidable planning and system failures, including the lack of functional backup power, notably in central offices," said the report, which was issued by FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

The executive summary did not touch on Sandy. Telecom services including 911 were affected in that massive storm but not as disproportionately as following the derecho.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to propose rules to beef up the networks, an FCC official said.

The changes envisioned would require audits of 911 circuits to ensure the companies know where they are in the network, backup power at main offices, regular maintenance and testing, and a requirement that companies notify emergency workers when the network is down, the official said.

(Reporting By Diane Bartz and Steve Orlofsky)

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