At least a year before ‘text-to-911’ turns on in Central Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) – When you see severe weather, many of us will text the information to friends or your favorite news station. But if you’re in the middle of that violent weather and need help, forget about texting 911 for at least a year, regional emergency managers say.

The Capital Area Council of Governments oversees 31 public safety answering points in 10 counties. Last summer it began installing a $5 million Canadian-made computer-aided dispatch software called Solacom. It has the capability to accept text messages and in the years ahead, calls for help from other social media.

Other applications for the text-to-911 include situations where a voice 911 call would give someone’s location away to a burglar or an abusive spouse. Text-to-911 also allows the hearing impaired to avoid relay systems that can slow down emergency response.

And while FCC data show more than 20 smaller Texas communities mainly on Verizon’s mobile network in the north part of the state have tested text-to-911 systems since last summer, the extensive testing continues in Central Texas where four providers share the  wireless telecom space.

“Verizon and T-Mobile are the furthest along. AT&T and Sprint are close behind,” said Gregg Obuch CAPCOG’s Emergency Coordinator. “So we want to make sure all of them are ready and we’re not going to make a mess of this when ever it comes time to text.”

Obuch speculates that will be sometime in mid-2015.

Not just because of the technological challenge of merging four different text messaging providers, he says, but also making sure those 911 centers are ready to accept the incoming messages.

Software ‘reliable’ but not without glitches

Sources at area 911 centers say that will involve training call center staff on a separate computer screen and interacting with it – on top of multiple tasks in an often stressful emergency environment.

While Obuch maintains the software is ‘reliable’ and callers today will get through to a live person to redirect them to police, fire or EMS, it has not been without its challenges according to staff inside Austin’s 911 call center where Solacom was installed last October.

More than 130 trouble tickets obtained by KXAN and sent to Solacom’s maintenance freezing or rebooting itself. The most obvious was a lengthy outage in mid-December where Austin 911 calls were re-routed to other area call centers.

In April, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told KXAN he is frustrated and wants the software glitches fixed as quickly as possible.

Obuch says the reported Solacom issues have nothing to do with the pace of  the rollout of the text-to-911 service. He suggests Central Texas will be one of the first in the nation to have true ‘next generation 911’ when the launch happens.

“We’re used to texting back and forth. But SMS texting is what’s called a ‘best effort’ service. There’s no guarantee that text message is going to go through,” said Obuch.

Right now, if you text a message to ‘911’ mobile providers have been asked to make sure you receive a bounce back message.

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