Hurricane Harvey: Inside the PSAP, Part 3 - Experience, Perspective and Thinking Ahead

Here is part three in our four-part series on the heroic efforts of Texas Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) personnel during Hurricane Harvey. We feature Galveston County Sheriff's Office which, like the other TX PSAPs we visited for this series, is served by the VESTA® 9-1-1 Call Handling solution.

NOTE: Read Part 1 and Part 2

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.

Galveston County Sheriff's Office 9-1-1 Team: (Back row, left to right) Margo Ihde, Lynda Ellis, Ashley Yarbrough, Larry Pugh, Ashley Taylor (Front row, left to right) Deborah Carrizalez, Krystal Stinson, Holly Massa, Lynette Henson, Kathryn Kroen (Not pictured) Tiffany Woods, Cody Jost

Lt. Margo Ihde, Division Commander for the Galveston County Sheriff's Office, is a thoughtful planner. She likes to think ahead for any pending situation and not leave any stone unturned. Those traits are part of her DNA. They have served her well in her 20-year Public Safety career. And, they paid off big time during Hurricane Harvey.

The Port of Galveston, situated 55 miles south of Houston, didn't take a direct hit from Harvey, but it was hit hard with heavy rain, high tide and storm surge - all at the same time. The island managed to escape flooding with the help of its 10-mile wide, 17-foot high seawall, which held strong during Harvey's pounding. But, Galveston County, which includes Galveston Island and the mainland, certainly saw its share of this devastating storm. Fortunately, its officials and staff took the proper precautions to ensure the safety of its County of 300,000.

"Our County Judge declared a disaster at noon on Thursday, August 24, which allowed the Sheriff and us as an agency and county to activate our essential personnel," explained Lt Ihde. "That declaration, and the Sheriff activating all essential personnel, gave us almost two days to prepare."

For Lt. Ihde, preparations included staffing of the County's four-position PSAP. The Sheriff's Office employs 11 Telecommunicators, under Lt. Ihde's direction, who answer and dispatch an average of 2,800 calls per month for 14 different agencies.

Having the time to make plans for personnel and their safety, Ihde says, "was a wise move given what happened with Hurricane Ike." The infamous storm, in 2008, hit the Port of Galveston, killing 36 people and destroying 80% of the homes. This prompted several actions to be prepared for future hurricanes.

Thoughtful Planning
Three years ago, when Lt. Ihde took over as Division Commander, she began planning for a fully functioning back-up communications center. It was to be located off the island, in case Galveston faced another direct hit like with Hurricane Ike. The project was completed on Thursday, August 26th, just in time for Harvey, which struck Friday, the 27th.

"We didn't have to leave the island, but if we did," Ihde said, "we would be ready." Her timing and thoughtful planning were right on cue.

In fact, only three weeks prior to Harvey, Lt. Ihde had requested a meeting with Galveston's 9-1-1 technology partners. These include Airbus, which provides the VESTA® 9-1-1 Call Handling system; AT&T, which provides the network; and the IT team at the Galveston County Emergency Communications District, which provides services for the 9-1-1 equipment at the Sheriff's Office. It proved to be a smart decision considering the events that were to follow.

"What's unique about our set-up at the Sheriff's Office is that our non-emergency numbers route through the VESTA 9-1-1 system, so Telecommunicators have only one console to manage and they can tell which calls are admin and which are 9-1-1." What this means is that they can use all the features for non-emergency calls that they use for 9-1-1 calls - like one-button transfer. But, until that meeting, they believed there was a limit on how many calls they could manage at one time.

In the meeting, Lt. Ihde discovered that, with a flip of a switch, the IT department could separate the county lines from the VESTA 9-1-1 system and double their number of phone lines - their community's resources - to eight lines.

It's situations like these that, for Lt. Ihde, confirm, "Knowledge is power."

Her desire and need to understand how the County's 9-1-1 equipment works continue to pay off. "Invest the time and understand from the user level how the backside of your equipment works, so when you are faced with a situation and things are not going as planned, you know what you need to do. If we hadn't had that meeting, we would not have known what was possible."

On Sunday, August 27th, at 4:00 AM when the calls got heavy, Lt. Ihde called IT, and they "flipped the switch."

The Calls for Help
On Friday the 27th, as Harvey was making its approach toward the coast of Galveston County, Lt. Ihde and her team moved into one of the Sheriff's Office conference rooms, which became their makeshift dorm during the worst of the storm. They brought air mattresses and multiple days of clothing and worked 12-hour shifts, four people per shift, through the following Tuesday.

Together, they would answer 1,200 9-1-1 calls in four days, nearly half of what they manage in 30 days. And, this does not include the number of calls received via the non-emergency phone lines.

"On Sunday at 2:00 AM, we started getting calls for rescues. By 3:00 AM on Sunday, we were in full activation mode, documenting the requests for rescue and tracking officers."

Lt. Ihde said that in some parts of the County there were up to eight feet of rushing water, which is why officers couldn't be dispatched right away. "In fact," she said, "water was so high in some spots, it was drowning the dump trucks."

She and her team reassured citizens they had their information and would get to them as soon as possible. At the same time, she said, "The deputies were told to get their vehicles to the highest point and hold until we knew it would be safe to dispatch."

Lt. Ihde acknowledged that waiting is the hardest thing for first responders to do because they want to provide help as fast as possible. She adds, "Water is unpredictable, and flood areas can change dramatically, so we have to hold fast until we know it is safe to start sending resources. If we send the wrong resource, we can jeopardize human life and property."

This resulted in hard decisions for her team, who together faced the critical undertaking of protecting first responders, while facilitating response for citizens in harm's way.

"A few times we pulled the team together, looked at the problem and brainstormed. You have to get their perspective. If your decision makes their job harder, that's not a good decision." And, the experience, though strenuous, made them stronger. "As a team, we learned that no matter what the situation, we can come together to make the best decisions to help the greatest amount of people."

Their Biggest Assets

For Lt. Ihde, as a supervisor, the experience reinforced a vow to herself - trust your team. "They are vested in this as much as you are, and there is nothing wrong with asking for feedback especially when you have to ask them to do things outside of the norm." Yet, to do so wholeheartedly, she ensures they have the tools they need to do their jobs.

Lt Ihde is passionate about training and making sure her team has opportunities to enhance their skills. "Training is not always an area of focus because of limited budgets. My advice is to focus on finding the highest quality training you can. Every time you can add tools to your Telecommunicator's toolbox, you are increasing the opportunity to save lives. Plus, you build each individual's confidence, and it shows you value them as a professional because you are willing to invest the time, money and effort to making sure they are the best they can be."

In the last three years, Lt. Ihde's team has completed over 2,500 hours of training, and she says, "it's paid off." This includes classroom and online training on various topics and equipment, like the VESTA 9-1-1 system.

Lt Ihde says the VESTA 9-1-1 system is the one thing they didn't have to worry about.

"With all we were facing, the reliability of the VESTA system, how well it functions and how predictable it is allowed us to focus on our mission - to help as many people as possible." Lt. Ihde says she is an advocate of a system being flexible and user friendly, like VESTA. "If you need to change something or add something, the user interface can easily be customized to the way you want it and that is very helpful."

She adds, "Features like the Dial Directory and one button transfer are huge. The services that support the Helicopter and Air Ambulance are icons that are easy to recognize. You hit the button and connect to whatever resource you are trying to get." Fast access to such resources is critical for Calltakers to effectively do what is a stressful job. And, sometimes they need resources to help them manage its demands.

That's why Lt. Ihde voluntarily serves on the Galveston County Crisis Intervention Team, a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency team that supports first responders. In fact, it was Lt. Ihde that Vernita Rawls of Dickinson, TX, from our Part 2 story on Hurricane Harvey, called to help her team debrief following the storm.

"We don't come unless we're invited," says Lt. Ihde. "Our goal is to take healthy first responders and help them stay healthy through education and support from peers. As a first responder, our responsibility is to take care of each other."

Taking care is exactly what she and her Telecommunicators do for their first responders, for their community and for each other every single day. "I am so proud of this team," she says. "They have the experience and perspective to protect life and property, especially in a situation like Harvey."

Note: The Galveston County Sheriff's Office 9-1-1 equipment is served by the Galveston County Emergency Communication District, which maintains the equipment used to answer 9-1-1 calls. In addition to Galveston County, the District serves the communities of Dickinson, 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 Lt. Ihde possible.

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