AUSTIN (KXAN) – After a number of computer issues that forced Austin’s 911 call center to temporarily reroute emergency calls, the city’s police chief is planning to go head-to-head with leaders at a regional governmental agency that oversees 911 services in Central Texas.
Those making promises to the police chief are emergency communications staff members at the Capital Area Council of Governments, or CAPCOG. The publicly funded agency oversees 911 service in 10 Central Texas counties.
After buying the ‘Solacom’ 911 system for $5.4 million in a 5-year contract, it was plugged into Austin’s call center last October.
Just 10 weeks later, last Dec. 16 while a back up system was undergoing maintenance, Solacom’s main server went dark. This prompted Austin 911 to ‘farm out’ its calls to surrounding 911 centers for hours.
Then, overnight on April 11, another smaller server crash left callers on hold, communications staff said. It also led others to hang up and again, for a brief time, forced the call center to redirect 911 calls to outlying centers.
Sources inside local law enforcement agencies say they know of few notable problems, but have heard local call-taking staff complain about the weekly maintenance of the Solacom system.
Last month on a tour of the sprawling 911 call center facility in North Austin, KXAN talked with 911 Police Commander Julie O’Brien about the system’s reliability.
“This is a major change in software so there’s always going to be glitches and growing pains with new software,” she said. “What we do is we keep track of any issues that come up.”
Last spring CAPCOG installed Solacom in all 31 local sheriff’s and police departments, also known as Public Safety Answering Points.
KXAN has requested from CAPCOG a list of those issues and maintenance ‘tickets’ sent by those public safety agencies since the system went live. We found a sample of the ‘911 Trouble Reports’ form on CAPCOG’s website. Managers are asked to fill in the form if problems crop up at 911 call centers and call AT&T’s 1-866 customer assurance line.
CAPCOG’s working on it
In response to questions about the root causes of the service disruptions in Austin and when the system will be fixed, CAPCOG gave KXAN this emailed statement on Thursday:
The Capital Area Council of Governments initiated a working group in February, representing the region’s (Public Safety Answering Points) PSAPs, to address concerns with the Solacom equipment as well as network issues with AT&T – a result of the December outage as well as some other smaller outages. Both companies have attended meetings with this group and have been responsive to working with CAPCOG on all issues to date
Our agency believes significant progress has been made and is committed to continue to address all issues related to equipment and network operations.
-Shareefah Hoover, CAPCOG
Solacom history in the US
Solacom is a Canadian-based company that’s been selling 911 management systems since 2007. It has big US contracts at 911 centers in several states including: California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Maine. In Texas the Solacom system is also used in Lubbock, according to news releases on the company website.
The company’s selling point: its ‘next generation’ software that will allow people to contact local 911 by text, email or their GPS systems.
Those features aren’t even turned on yet here.
“I want to tell CAPCOG and Solacom, ‘time’s up,'” Acevedo said.
A company spokesperson based out of Solacom’s Illinois office told KXAN he could not comment publicly on the Austin 911 situation pending approval from his supervisors. It was also pointed out AT&T ‘bought’ the system from Solacom so its involvement was now third party. CAPCOG’s website also says its emergency systems are maintained by a team of trained call-takers throughout the region.
Who owns or operates the system is no comfort to Austin’s police chief.
“At the end of the day, who are the ones answering questions on these issues? It’s not CAPCOG, it’s not Solacom, it’s not AT&T; it’s the Austin Police Department and either they get it right, or we’ll find a vendor that can do it right,” the chief said, promising to attend CAPCOG’s next public 911 strategy meeting to make his point to the agency’s leaders face-to-face.
CAPCOG’s website calendar lists April 23 at 1 p.m. as the next meeting of its 911 Strategic Advisory Committee.
At the state level, Texas has set aside fees statewide to help agencies upgrade their systems to Next Generation 911. They have the money to do the work now. However as KXAN revealed in October, lawmakers never spent the money in order to balance our budgets.