Hurricane Harvey: Inside the PSAP, Part 2
We continue our four-part series on the heroic efforts of Texas Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) personnel during Hurricane Harvey by featuring the Dickinson Police Department. This PSAP, like the other TX PSAPs we visited for this series, are served by the VESTA® 9-1-1 Call Handling solution.
We thank the individuals who took time to speak with us for each of the articles. To you and all the Calltakers and Dispatchers who work behind the scenes to take our 9-1-1 calls, we know you are "the gold link that holds us all together." We stand in awe of what you do every day. Thank you.
Showing That You Care
Dickinson Police Department 9-1-1 Team: (Back row, left to right) Molly Evans, Mary Duvall, Vernita Rawls, Barbara Black, Tandra Currier, Clinton Brown, Amanda Parker, Shajira Cocco (Front row, TERT Team from the Dallas area) Christine Dykes, Erin Whitfield, Julia Maschmann, Maria Lemonds
Heavy rain was in the forecast when Vernita Rawls, Communications Supervisor at the Dickinson Police Department, TX, got to work at 6:00 PM on Saturday, September 26th. But, she had a gut feeling about Hurricane Harvey. It told her to expect otherwise, yet she couldn't have imagined what was in store. In fact, the town of Dickinson, situated 31 miles south of Houston and home to 20,000, was one of the hardest hit in the Houston area. No one had expected the 40-plus inches of rain they got in 24 hours, flooding 90% of the town.
Vernita, who still works a console because it's needed and because she loves it, was covering for one of the Dispatchers who was out sick. The Dickinson Police Department is a three-position PSAP with four administrative lines. The other Dispatcher on duty was Barbara Black. Together, Vernita and Barbara have 35 years of experience handling 9-1-1 calls. And, they would need every ounce of that experience for the days ahead.
"I told Barbara if I had to go through this I'm so glad I'm next to you," said Vernita. "Barbara had just celebrated her 20-year anniversary. We were watching the weather and making a plan. We were confident that, if it hit, we were prepared mentally."
Since Harvey was not Vernita's first hurricane, she'd come prepared in other ways as well. "I brought a bag that day, just in case, with my pajamas, supplies and an air mattress." She knew what she would need, having been there for Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. But neither were a match for Harvey.
At 11:00 PM on Saturday night, it started raining - hard. The phones also started ringing, and they wouldn't stop for the next three days. The first calls were mainly from stranded motorists. But, just three hours later, the calls were about water coming into homes.
Police cars could not be dispatched because of the magnitude of the flooding, and the rest of Vernita's team didn't start arriving until Sunday. "It was a slow process to get everyone here," said Vernita. "Several attempts were made to pick up one of our Dispatchers. It wasn't until Tuesday we were able to get to her through a combination of a high-water rescue vehicle and airboat."
Vernita and Barbara ended up working 32 hours straight.
"People were crying on the phone," recalls Vernita. "The situations people were facing broke your heart. 'I have water up to my chest, what do I do?' We would have to say, 'We don't have the means to physically get to you. We have the National Guard and Coast Guard on the way. You will get help. We can't get our regular patrol cars on the street because of the flooding. You are on the list. We will not forget you. Please hang on.'"
They made a list of all the people calling, verifying their names, phone numbers and addresses and identifying those who needed to be rescued first. These were the elderly, people with babies and those with medical problems.
Vernita said it was one of the toughest situations in her Public Safety career. "You can't fall apart in a situation like this. You have to hold it together because people are depending on you." And, there's no doubt Vernita and her team were put to the test.
In a normal month, the Dickinson PD receives around 7,400 calls, including 9-1-1 and administrative. They received that and more - 8,197 calls - during the first three days of the storm. Vernita said, throughout the entire event, the VESTA 9-1-1 system was outstanding. "It worked flawlessly. We never even had to think about whether or not it would perform. Never had a thought about missing calls. We knew we were getting the calls."
At midnight on Wednesday, Vernita's team got reinforcements. Four people from the Dallas Telecommunications Emergency Response Team (TERT) arrived. "We showed them what to do and an hour later you couldn't tell they hadn't been there the whole time. They were phenomenal." Their team stayed until the following Sunday.
Having the TERT on site allowed Vernita and team to take turns in having 24 hours off. They each used the time to go home, see their families and assess the storm's damage. But, Vernita also used the chance to gather her team and assess the impact Harvey had on them.
Vernita could see the experience hit the team hard. The after-effects varied among the group, from panic attacks and nightmares to subtle signs of stress and depression. So Vernita called members of the Galveston County Crisis Incident Stress Management (CISM) team and asked them to meet the 9-1-1 team for breakfast. She knew the CISM team would be a great asset because she joined the team earlier this year. "They were invaluable," she said, "and allowed us to regroup and learn that what we were going through was completely normal, given the events we had all experienced."
Vernita lives by the golden rule, "Treat others how you want to be treated," in her personal and professional life.
"Imagine yourself in a situation like Harvey and respond accordingly. Something like this could happen to any one of us at any given moment," warns Vernita. "If I'm not reacting with care and concern, I shouldn't be doing this. If you lose that humanness, if taking those calls doesn't pull on your heart strings, you should do something else. People do this job because they want to help people. The day that's not a priority is the day to find something else to do."
But, the constant tug on your heart strings comes with a price. "You have to know when to say WHEN, like when to sleep for a couple of hours," cautions Vernita. "It's difficult to take care of yourself at a time like this. You have to be willing to accept help. Accepting help is not an acceptance of failure. Our tendency in this job is to go into superman mode, 'I only need two hours of sleep and I can go another 12 hours.'"
She adds, "We take our jobs so seriously. Being able to take a call, get the information quickly, give words of comfort and move on to the next is a skill."
That's why she says you have to trust your instincts, especially in an event like Harvey, when the magnitude catches you by surprise. "It's your good ole common sense that will get you through. You can't practice for every situation. There's no disaster handbook on this one. We did the best we could with the resources we had."
Resources during those early days of Hurricane Harvey were slim. In fact, in the 32 hours Vernita and Barbara worked straight through, they didn't have any visuals because the cable had gone out in the Communications Center and there are no windows. It wasn't until three weeks later that the two of them went online to look at the videos of the flooding. Of what they saw, Vernita says, "I don't know if the cable going out was a blessing or a curse." Yet, at the end of the day, it didn't matter. Because if you ask Vernita what truly got them through that time, she'll tell you it was the other's support and care. "Our biggest asset became each other."
Note: The Dickinson Police Department is served by the Galveston County Emergency Communication District, which maintains the equipment that is used to answer 9-1-1 calls. In addition to Dickinson, the District serves the communities of Galveston, Tiki Island, Bayou Vista, Texas City, La Marque, Kemah, Hitchcock, Santa Fe, Jamaica Beach and Clear Lake Shores. We extend a big thank you to Jack Wilkins and Sheila Hunt at the District for helping make the visit with Vernita possible.
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