Text-to-911 coming to Central Texas this August

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A two-year wait for a text-to-911 service is nearly over in Central Texas, as long as everything goes as planned.

“August, we will be bringing up the Public Safety Answering Points (call centers) in Hays, Travis and Williamson Counties,” the Director of Emergency Communications at the Capital Area Council of Governments or CAPCOG, Gregg Obuch, said Wednesday.

Bastrop, Caldwell, Fayette and Lee Counties expect to come online in September followed in October by: Blanco, Burnet and Llano Counties. The system should be fully operational by Thanksgiving, Obuch says.

When the system launches, Obuch believes a small number of 911 contacts will actually come via text. If a prank texts come in, staff are trained on how to handle those messages, CAPCOG memos show. In recent years, Austin’s call center fielded nearly 900,000 calls. Those who train 911 call takers at CAPCOG’s call center (which also serves as a back up and overflow facility for Austin’s main call center) say anyone who can’t talk or speak out loud will be able to reach out for help by text.

Independence for the Hearing Impaired

One of the new user groups will be Austin’s hearing impaired community, whose advocates say is comprised of 100,000 people.

MaryAnn Killian with Austin Community Services for the Deaf signs with her interpreter, Sara
MaryAnn Killian with Austin Communication Service for the Deaf signs with her interpreter, Sara

“We’ve been waiting for this. Access has been something we’ve been fighting for, for years,” AnnMarie Killian with the Austin branch of Communication Service for the Deaf told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell through her American Sign Language interpreter Sara.

Killian pointed out she had to call 911 just last Thursday. Her young daughter who ‘can’ hear, told her mom the home alarm was going off.

Unable to call 911 directly, seconds ticked by as Killian first called up an interpreter on a video relay service, who then dialed 911.

Traditionally, hearing impaired people used a teletype device known as a TDD to call for help. But Killian says few, if any people have used it, a statement backed up by CAPCOG statistics.

“It’s because TDD’s are dinosaurs. The deaf community isn’t able to call in to 911 using their native language which is American Sign Language,” Killian says.

Since ASL uses a different set of rules than spoken and written languages, hearing impaired callers will likely use simple, descriptive words such as: Fire or help! Call takers are being trained to use probing questions, which are perfect for the text messaging format.

“I have a series of pre-composed messages… I can choose and hit ‘send. Or I can free-text to the caller and ask whatever questions I have for them,” says Devin Denson, Emergency Communications 9-1-1 Operations Coordinator, adding training has been far simpler in scope than some call takers had feared.

Providers are reminding people texting for help should be considered a last resort. They even have drafted a catchy marketing phrase ahead of an expected education campaign set for this summer: “Call if you can, text if you can’t,” says Obuch.

In May, 2014 Federal telecom regulators mandated phone carriers have the technical ability to offer text to 911. The task of merging different phone systems fell to local call center groups to eliminate gaps between counties. At the time, Obuch predicted the service would be up by June 2015. In a follow up report last September, he offered June 2016 as a ‘go’ date.

Cost of text to 911

Wednesday CAPCOG’s Board of Managers unanimously approved the deployment plan and a contract with a private vendor to maintain a Text Control Center at a cost of $177,200 over the next two years, according to meeting memos. That includes start-up, equipment and maintenance costs.

CAPCOG’s Emergency Communications staff say they’re ready, even though they can’t truly test the system until the switch is flipped.

“How are you going to make sure it works?” asked KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.

“When we bring it up and start testing, the first calls will be answered here in the City of Austin and we’ll make sure we’re getting everything we’re supposed to and move forward from there,” Obuch replied.

Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission’s website shows more than 600 Texas public safety networks have or will have text to-911 programs up and running. Central Texas will add 31 call centers to cover 10 counties.

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