The Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District is a special-purpose government district, created under Section 772 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, that provides 911 service in Wichita and Wilbarger counties. The District is an independent government agency under the control of a local board of governors. The District was formed in Wichita County in 1986, after approval by Wichita County voters. On January 1, 1987, the District was expanded to include Wilbarger County. The District maintains 11 call-taking positions at the Wichita Falls Police Department Training Center, one position each at the police department headquarters of Burkburnett, Iowa Park, Electra and Vernon, one position at Sheppard Air Force Base, and two positions at the local offices of American Medical Response, an ambulance service. Pursuant to the District’s governing legislation, this system is funded by 911 fees assessed on landline and wireless telephone connections.
The District’s board of governors consists of two representatives from Wichita County, one representative from Wilbarger County, two representatives from municipal governments, and one representative for the volunteer fire departments. The members of the current board of governors are Pat Norriss and Wichita County Commissioner Jeff Watts representing Wichita County, Kent Smead representing Wilbarger County, Dana Ross and Wichita Falls Mayor Glenn Barham representing the municipalities, and Chairman Greg Lynn, Chief of the Electra Volunteer Fire Department, representing the volunteer fire departments.
The District provides two important services: providing a reliable and technologically up-to-date 911 system, and maintaining an extensive geographic database of the two-county area. In November of 2014, the District upgraded its system with the latest digital 911 technology. 911 calls in the District area are routed through a 911 server that places the call in the hands of the appropriate responding agency. Each call-taker is equipped with a desktop computer that handles the call, displays caller information, and plots the location of the caller on a map of the two county area. To provide accurate locations of 911 callers, the District has mapped every public and private road in both Wichita and Wilbarger counties with GPS equipment, and has mapped the location of every address in the unincorporated areas of the two counties. Because of our role in mapping addresses, the District is also responsible for assigning addresses to new construction in the unincorporated areas of Wichita and Wilbarger counties. The map created with this data is integrated into the call-taking positions, and the 911 dispatcher can use it to pinpoint the precise location of a 911 caller. Our mapping and addressing efforts are fundamental to providing an accurate location of a caller to the dispatcher, and locating callers is a key element of enhanced 911 service.
The Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District is just one of many agencies and organizations that provide or support 911 in the State of Texas. Other districts, Home Rule Cities (HRCs), and Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) provide 911 in other parts of the state. Like the Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District, the other districts and HRCs control 911 administration locally, set their own policies and collect their own revenue in the form of 911 fees. This independence allows these agencies to provide 911 service that is well-tailored to the areas that they serve. Unlike districts and the HRCs, the 911 activities of RPCs are coordinated by an executive state agency, the Commission on State Emergency Communication (CSEC). CSEC provides funding for the 911 activities of the RPCs, and has the authority to set policy for them. The funding made available through CSEC is not automatic, however. 911 fees collected in the areas served by RPCs are placed in the Texas General Revenue Fund, and must be specifically appropriated by the Legislature. Although the Legislature cannot use the collected fees for non-911 purposes, it can choose not to appropriate all of the fees collected.
Since its formation, the Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District has been at the forefront of technical innovation in emergency communications. In 1987, the District began enhanced 911 (E911) service for the two-county area. E911 allows the location of the caller to be transmitted with the 911 call, greatly aiding in the prompt and accurate dispatch of the police, fire service or an ambulance during an emergency. Although this feature of 911 is now taken for granted, prior to E911, the 911 dispatcher had to rely on the caller to give a location. This caused delays or incorrect dispatching in cases where the caller was unable to speak, or did not know his or her location.
The District was also one of the first agencies in the nation to install the technology allowing a 911 dispatcher to automatically locate a person calling 911 from a cell phone. In fact, there are still areas in Texas and the US that do not offer this service. The Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District has provided the service for over a decade.
The District has also taken steps to increase the reliability of the 911 system. The District has successfully created redundant data links to databases in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that are essential for locating 911 callers. By ensuring that multiple fiber optic links connect the 911 servers in Wichita Falls with the databases in Fort Worth, the District has protected the 911 network from disruption in the event of unanticipated damage to part of the network. In addition, the District has put in place redundant pathways between the central servers in Wichita Falls and each of the remote answering points, making certain that no element of the local system will be stranded from the rest of the network in an emergency.
Despite successes in creating a robust, reliable 911 network, changes in the telecommunications industry require that 911 agencies constantly reevaluate systems, methods and equipment, and modify them to work with emerging technologies. The telecommunications industry has moved on from the analogue networks of the past. Large parts of the telephone network are now digital, both in the landline and wireless segments of the market. New services like text and picture messaging, cable phones and voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) phones are also digital. The telephone network and the computer network, or the internet, are rapidly converging into a single network that handles all forms of data, whether voice, text, picture or video, in the same way. As this transition nears completion, the 911 system will have to transform in a similar way in order to adapt. This transition will be to a new 911 system that is digital and is commonly referred to as next-generation 911 (NG911).
In NG911, calls will come from many more sources and devices than in the past. The era when 911 calls could be expected only from landline or from traditional wireless phones is over. In the future, emergency calls will originate from digital equipment such as text devices, internet phones, video phones, automatic notification devices and services that have yet to be invented. Since calls from these new devices and services will come to the answering point in a different format than in the past, 911 administrators must change their networks so that they can receive the new calls.
The Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District is prepared for future developments in 911 networks. In November of 2014, the District upgraded to a fully digital 911 server. This new equipment will be ready when next generation 911 networks come online, and it will be prepared to accept new forms of 911 data, including pictures and video.
One new service that has already been integrated into the District’s 911 system is text messaging. Since its introduction earlier in the 2000’s, the popularity of text messaging has increased dramatically. Many consumers believe that the 911 system is accessible by text messaging. However, the legacy 911 system could not accept text messages because of technology incompatibilities. This has recently changed. Recent technological developments in text-to-911 have allowed the District to provide text-to-911 service from all major cell carriers in the area.
The readiness of 911 agencies to make the transition to next-generation 911 has received a great deal of recent attention. Reports published by equipment vendors and trade organizations argue that the U.S. 911 system, as it is currently configured, will not be able to transition to a next-generation network. These reports argue that local 911 authorities are not technologically prepared for next-generation 911 because the governance and funding models under which those authorities operate are antiquated and inefficient. Traditionally, 911 has fallen under the authority of local governmental entities, which have the power to set their own policies and collect their own revenue. However, some groups urge state governments to consolidate 911 administration at the state level, decrease the autonomy of local agencies, and centralize the collection of 911 fees.
At the Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District, we see things differently. Our District has no difficulty staying current on emergency technology. The District has been one of the first agencies in the country to implement each of the major advances in 911 technology in the past 20 years, whether automatic location for land-line calls, automatic location technology for wireless, the ability to receive calls from internet-based phone services, or the ability to receive text-to-911 calls. We do not believe that we have been able to do this in spite of being a locally controlled agency, but because of it. Our district is able to control its own revenue. We are directly accountable to the citizens of our counties for the quality of the service we provide. The fact that the district is locally controlled means that we can efficiently allocate our resources in a way that is to the greatest advantage of our area.
We believe that in order to maintain the Texas 911 system at its current high levels of quality, local control by 911 emergency communications districts must be maintained. 911 fees are more efficiently used when administered under local control, and upgrades to 911 equipment and networks are more prompt and effective.
The Wichita-Wilbarger 911 District intends to manage the integration of new technologies into the 911 system while continuing to provide high-quality 911 service. The upgrades and expanded services recently implemented by the District, as well as the District’s history of forward thinking and technical innovation, illustrate its commitment to providing the highest quality 911 service to Wichita and Wilbarger counties. The District will continue to develop and implement a 911 system that can meet the challenges of the fast-evolving telecommunications environment and that can provide the best 911 service to those in need of emergency help.