Next generation 911 system in the works for tri-county region

MARFA –  On Tuesday the tech company Carbyne demonstrated its next generation 911 emergency system to dispatchers in the tri-county region. The new 911 software, called APEX, allows for callers to text and send live video to emergency response personnel in order to provide a more complete picture of where they are located.

This presentation comes as the tri-county region –– through the Rio Grande Council of Governments –– migrates away from its legacy 911 equipment to a more modern cloud-based dispatch service. Marisa Quintanilla, who oversees the region’s dispatch service, said, “The legacy equipment was based on the Southwestern Bell communication system, the old telephones, that’s what we’re still using today. The next gen 911 is moving away from the analog circuits and going to the digital circuits.”

Quintanilla set up the presentation with Carbyne in order to hear if local dispatchers thought this new system would work in the remote tri-county region with its spotty connectivity and limited cellular coverage.

One of the biggest features to the APEX system is the ability for callers to transmit video to dispatchers in order to further pin down the caller’s location. In the presentation, Carbyne Chief Architect Jason Wellonen explained how the APEX system will automatically send a caller a text message that prompts the user to transmit real-time video to the dispatchers, much like a FaceTime call.

“For example, when there was the shooting in Alpine [in 2016], if somebody was able to send you video as to where the shooter was … then you have better information to relay to that first responder,” Quintanilla said.

The APEX system also allows dispatchers to text with callers, add other personnel to the line and view a caller’s location on a program powered by Google maps.

One concern for dispatchers was whether the limited strength of the cell connection in the area would prevent callers from being able to transmit video. In response, Carybyne Customer Manager Shawn Barnes told the dispatchers, “You may not have enough bandwidth for video, but you may have enough there for location [data].”

These new video features would only work on modern smartphones, not landlines or older cell phones. One dispatcher mentioned that in Hudspeth County, they receive a lot of calls from undocumented immigrants who just have a flip phone and wouldn’t be able to take advantage of these next generation features.

Yet Quintanilla hopes this new system will be able to help Border Patrol agents, who often act as emergency first responders, locate those crossing the border that are in need of help. “Going to the case where you have an undocumented immigrant lost in the desert,” she said, “If we’re able to get that video, we can dispatch first responders and we can say they’re right here. And first responders can see that multimedia information as well.”

“One of the things it won’t solve is when we have calls from Mexico because we all get them,” Quintanilla said. As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, some emergency calls from residents in Mexico have been misrouted to dispatchers in the US.

While the new APEX system wouldn’t stop calls from being misrouted, it could allow dispatchers on both sides of the border to communicate with one another. According to Barnes, Carbyne already works with most states in Mexico, including all of the border states. Even though the specific software Mexico uses is different, dispatchers could be able to transfer information through the APEX system. “We are currently meeting with CBP on some cross-border initiatives,” Barnes said.

Quintanilla will be in front of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications on May 19 to request the funds for this next generation 911 system. The current cost hovers just around $500,000, according to Quintanilla.

“I have quotes from two other vendors, proposals from two other vendors, but they don’t provide the multimedia capability that I’m interested in,” she said. “Right now the vendor Carbyne is the only one that I know that is delivering a multimedia approach.”

After the presentation came to close, Monica Sanchez –– who runs the Presidio dispatch office –– said the area could really benefit from APEX’s live-video capabilities. “Sometimes these people don’t know where they’re at. Sometimes they tell us ‘We’re by Chinati Peak,’ but that could mean they’re anywhere really,” she said. “But if we’re physically able to see them, it would really help us out.”