Introducing Hurricane Harvey: Inside The PSAP - Part 1

The heroic efforts of Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) personnel - those on The Thin Gold Line, working behind the scenes to take our 9-1-1 calls - are not always acknowledged. Their role in responding to an emergency is not always realized like those of our responders dispatched to the scene. But, we, in the Public Safety world, know it most always starts with our Calltakers and Dispatchers. They are "the gold link that holds us all together."

Your Airbus DS Communications team recently had the opportunity to speak with PSAP supervisors affected by Hurricane Harvey. All the PSAPs we visited, we are proud to say, are served by the VESTA® 9-1-1 Call Handling solution. And, the story below begins a four-part series to give insight into the role of their Calltakers and Dispatchers during one of the worst storms in U.S. history, dumping an unbelievable 27 trillion gallons of water and causing billions of dollars in damage.

We thank the individuals who took time to speak with us for each of the articles in the series. We stand in awe of the work you do every day to keep us safe. It's "rarely seen, but always heard and appreciated."

From our team to yours, thank you.

It Brought Out the Best in Us

The Victoria 9-1-1 Team from left to right: Dawn Smith, Ted Thompson, Kedre Parsons, Cynthia Inmon, Pat Cantu, and Krystal Solis. Also on the team but not in the picture: Katie Moore, Eva Olguin, Greg Ochoa, Octavia Brown, Martha Garza, Lisa DeLaGarza, Sharon Reynolds, Tojuana Escobar, Amber Ochoa, and Candice Reyna.

When Ted Thompson, Public Safety Communications Manager for the Victoria Police Department, TX, got to work Friday morning, August 25th, it was raining hard. Hurricane Harvey was forecast to hit the Central Texas coast that night as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 130 mph. And, the city of Victoria, situated just 30 miles inland, was a prime target.

That's why, the day before Harvey hit, officials issued a mandatory evacuation and curfew to protect the nearly 80,000 citizens in Victoria County. This issue signals there will be no emergency services (e.g., Police, Fire and EMS) until the evacuation is lifted. When winds reach 45 miles per hour, Public Safety officials are not allowed to dispatch because it's simply too dangerous. Sustained winds in Victoria reportedly reached 95 mph.

Yet, for Ted and team, comprised of one Calltaker and 16 Dispatchers - the latter who answer 9-1-1 calls and dispatch, they knew how busy they would be and immediately began preparing for the worst. Ted anticipated they would be sequestered for at least 48 hours while Harvey wreaked havoc all around them.

"You can never be too prepared," said Ted. "Always prepare for one grade higher hurricane than what is forecast. And make sure you have enough food for everyone and spare bedding for those that don't think to bring bedding." True to his advice, Ted was prepared, having gathered supplies - food, bedrolls, snacks, drinks and clothing.

Ted learned these things first hand as Harvey wasn't his first hurricane, but it was his first hurricane as a supervisor. He has served in Public Safety 19 years, starting as a dispatcher in the nearby town of Refugio. Then he worked as a dispatcher in College Station before coming to Victoria two years ago to be closer to family.

Harvey's Arrival

On Friday morning, at 10:00 AM, anticipating the worst, 250 people, including Police staff, county and city officials and Ted and his team, moved to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The EOC, designed to withstand up to a Category 5 hurricane, houses the 9-1-1 back-up center and is in a separate building a few blocks from the Police Department. They knew, with the high winds forecasted, they would be at risk in their existing facilities. So, operations were set up in the EOC basement, and the higher floors would be used for sleeping.

That night, Harvey struck as planned, with its eye first making landfall on San Jose Island, approximately 65 miles south.

"Victoria lost power around midnight," said Ted, "and we switched to the generator. We ran on the generator until Monday." Ted said the only thing bad about the generator is that it powers only the EOC basement. And, since sleeping occurred on the top floors, everyone had to sleep without air conditioning. This was not an easy task, in Texas, in August, on top of everything else they were dealing with.

Early Saturday afternoon, Ted ventured out of the EOC, even with the raging storm, to access the damage at the PSAP. "It was a miracle that the building was in good shape. There was just minimal damage."

Ted and his team were able to return to the PSAP at 3:00 PM on Saturday, but that was as far as they could go.

"Even after we returned, we were not able to allow Dispatchers to return home," said Ted, "until Sunday at 7:00 AM." The two primary reasons were safety and PSAP staffing. "We were concerned for their safety and concerned if they did go home, they wouldn't make it back because of the conditions of the roadways. We had to ensure the PSAP was staffed."

His team remained strong, despite knowing many of their homes didn't fare as well as the PSAP. "We had Dispatchers with significant damage to their homes," said Ted. Still, the end wasn't in sight.

More Disaster

Just when things seemed to have slowed down, the Guadalupe River, which runs through Victoria, flooded. The flood stage is 21 feet, and on Tuesday, August 29th, at 1:00 PM, it was at 29.32 feet. It crested on Wednesday at 31 feet.

"We took hurricane calls Friday through Monday. Then, on Tuesday, we had a new set of calls with the river flooding," said Ted. "We took calls for a solid week, dealing with Harvey."

The call count tells the story.

Victoria PD, a six-position PSAP, normally takes 550 calls a day, including 9-1-1 and administrative. Beginning August 24th and ending the following Friday, September 1st, Victoria took 11,715 calls, 9-1-1 and administrative, an increase of about 6,800 calls over normal call volume. A large part of those calls - 1,478 - were taken during their 29 hours at the EOC, which is equipped with only two positions (vs. six at the PSAP). In fact, 945 of those calls were received in 15 hours, from midnight to 3:00 PM on Saturday.

Fortunately, they were never without power, and the VESTA system never stopped working.

"It is unbelievable the level of multitasking the Dispatchers were doing throughout the week," said Ted. "We were handling calls for Fire and Police using the Emergency Medical Dispatch and Emergency Fire Dispatch protocols, giving pre-and post-arrival instructions, while still taking and dispatching other calls for service. The phone never stopped ringing."

Coming Together

There's no doubt that Ted's advice to be overprepared in these type emergencies was invaluable. But, there were lessons learned and even positive realizations despite the tragedy.

"In a situation like this," said Ted, "you learn a lot about the people you work with every day. You learn who your stakeholders are and if they are invested in this as much as you are. You know the answer by their actions and behavior and resilience."

As for his Dispatchers who took the 11,175 calls from citizens, Ted says, "We have four platoons on 12-hour shifts. We're not normally all together very often. But seeing us in action during Harvey, you gain a new level of respect for each other. We're a better team."

He added, "We do what we do just for these occasions, like Harvey. When we do it daily, we are good. But, when we prepare for the worst, it is our time to shine. And we did. The experience brought out the best in us."

Note: Victoria County's 9-1-1 services are governed by the Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission, which also serves DeWitt, Goliad, Gonzales, Jackson and Lavaca counties in south Texas. We give thanks to Lesley Sciba, the Commission's Director, who made the visit with Ted possible.

And, of course, we extend a big thank you to Ted and his team for their time, as well as a job well done!

Read all of our four-part series!
Part 1 - Featuring the Victoria 9-1-1 Team
Part 2 - Featuring the Dickinson Police Department
Part 3 - Featuring the Galveston County Sheriff's Office