Callers frustrated over lack of phone service in Burnet County area

ispatchers for the Burnet County Sheriff's Office were unable to receive 911 calls when a AT&T fiber line was cut (KXAN Photo/Lauren Kravets).
Dispatchers for the Burnet County Sheriff's Office were unable to receive 911 calls when a AT&T fiber line was cut (KXAN Photo/Lauren Kravets).

BURNET COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — “Telephone service is one of those critical, basic functions that we have.” When Lonnie Bear couldn’t use his cell phone most of Tuesday, he was frustrated, especially with his wife at home sick, unable to reach him.

“It’s a big public safety issue, if you can’t get a signal on your cell phone, you can’t even place a call.”

The problem stems from damage to AT&T lines. The company says the outage that happened Tuesday was due to a fiber cut, somewhere along State Highway 29, between Burnet and Liberty Hill. That is the second fiber cut in Burnet County since the beginning of the year. There were two other AT&T outages — one caused by a damaged cable and the other due to bad weather, according to the Capital Area Council of Governments, known as CAPCOG.

AT&T tells KXAN workers for other companies caused three of the outages. On Tuesday, crews were installing power poles when they cut the line, impacting 911 calls.

Emergency calls were re-routed to other police departments. The Burnet County Sheriff’s Office rerouted its calls to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Williamson County took 12 total 911 calls, eight of which were actual emergencies, and four which were mistaken calls or administrative calls.

The Lampasas County Sheriff’s Office says it diverted its 911 calls to the Copperas Cove Police Department. Although, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office did receive one 911 call from Lampasas County.

The problem has been fixed, but Bear knows it’s a matter of time before it happens again. “There need to be back ups in place to deal when you have outages.”

CAPCOG is working on a back up plan. It’s installing a secondary fiber line for the 10-county area, which includes, Travis, Williamson, and Burnet counties.That “back up line” would automatically kick in if an outage happens. CAPCOG says that’s a three-year project. At this point only two counties are not hooked up, one of those is Burnet County.

AT&T was responsible for an outage this year due to problems nationwide in March. The company also says like any communications company, they are impacted when construction contractors accidentally damage their equipment. But when it happens, they work as quickly as possible to restore service.

Some customers with providers other than AT&T may have also been affected by the outage. A CAPCOG spokesperson says that could happen if other carriers shared the same fiber route as AT&T.

The fix is in — almost

911 interruptions in Burnet County could be a thing of the past soon. The Capital Area Council of Governments is currently working a three-year plan to provide the ten counties under its jurisdiction a backup system to prevent 911 outages.

The CAPCOG  provides funding, training, and planning for 911 call centers in Bastrop, Blanco, Caldwell, Fayette, Hays, Lee, Llano, Travis and Williamson Counties.

CAPCOG has already installed a backup optical fiber system to 25 of the 26 communications centers within its 10-county area. 12 of those centers have active backup fiber lines, which means an outage from a cut wouldn’t shut down a 911 center. CAPCOG said two centers do not yet have the secondary fiber line; one of those two includes Burnet County.

The next generation of 911

Emergency call centers across the country are replacing their telephone company-based analog systems with Next Generation 911 systems. NG911 systems are a digital replacement for those phone line-based systems that many 911 centers operate on now.

Most all of Texas’ 911 centers use analog systems, according to a 2016 report from the National 911 Program.  The report is a comprehensive break down of where the nation’s 911 centers stand in the transition toward Next Generation 911 systems. Texas has not installed any NG911 technology at its dispatch centers, the federal report shows.

The NG911 would allow dispatchers to see the GPS coordinates of 911 callers. In the current system, dispatchers can see a the area from where a cell phone call originates. The system would also allow callers the option of texting 911 centers. Neither of those features are happening today in the areas served by Texas’ Commission on State Emergency Communications, according to CSEC executive director, Kelli Merriweather.

CSEC is the authority for the majority of the state’s emergency communication systems.

CAPCOG’s web site shows it hopes to have its text-to-911 technology up and running this month in the agency’s Capital Area Emergency Communications District.

The 2016 National 911 Progress Report shows Texas lags behind several states in implementing NG911 systems. In context, Texas has the largest number of primary call centers in the nation with 469 centers, compared to California’s second-highest number of 399.

However, the federal report shows 12 local Texas 911 centers have issued calls for bids from contractors to begin installing NG911 components.

The 2016 report also shows Texas dispatchers fielded 2.2 million landline calls for the reporting year and another 23 million cell phone calls to the state’s 911 centers.

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