Inside Houston’s frenzied 911 call center

HOUSTON — Some of the callers are panicking; others exude a strange serenity. One moment, Harvey’s floodwaters are pouring into a home, the next a motorist is trapped on an inundated interstate. A woman goes into labor in a washed-out neighborhood, and a split-second later, a family seeks rescue from their attic. The pleas for help stream in hour after hour, call after call after call.

In the thick of a paralyzing storm and its aftermath, the weight of this swamped city’s problems are landing at the cavernous 911 call center, where operators are racing to keep up as people dial in by the tens of thousands.

“This is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before,” operator Erika Wells says, in a short reprieve between calls.



Hurricane Harvey: How Local First Responders Are Helping

FAIRFAX COUNTY, VA—Earlier this week, Fairfax County first responders deployed to the Houston area along with other search and rescue teams to assist with Tropical Storm Harvey rescue efforts. And as we've seen devastating stories like the toddler found clinging to her drowned mother, every life the team has saved makes all of the different.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue team is part of the Virginia Task Force 1 Swiftwater team responding after the hurricane devastated the Texas coast, killing at least 39.

So far the 14 Fairfax County first responders that are swiftwater trained have been rescuing residents from flooded homes in Kingwood, Texas. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue reported Thursday that the VA-TF1 team has rescued six people and two pets that were stranded in flooded homes. The team also went back for a resident's three pets and people's medications and other personal belongings. 



Houston Restaurants Mobilize To Feed Relief Workers, Victims In Harvey’s Aftermath

While first responders and civilian volunteers helped rescue thousands of Houstonians from dangerous high-water situations, the city’s restaurants quickly mobilized to ensure that every single volunteer and public servant had something to eat.

The efforts began over the weekend, with local chefs and restaurants making surprise deliveries of food to shelters and police stations across the city. On Monday, employees at Frank’s Pizza braved the flooding in Downtown to bring piping-hot pizzas to Houston police officers. On Monday, when the police department’s official Twitter account announced that it was looking to buy meals from local restaurants to feed its employees, dozens of restaurants replied, offering to feed first responders for free.

A number of local restaurants, including Down House and West Alabama Ice House, have served as drop-off centers for donated goods. In order to fully coalesce these efforts, Chef Richard Knight, formerly of Hunky Dory, and Houston Food Finder’s Phaedra Cook took to Facebook to mobilize service industry professionals in order to provide help in an organized fashion. At the same time, Knight was using his vehicle and canoe to assist with water rescues.



Command post staged in S.A. for first responders headed to affected areas

A huge operation and massive rescue efforts are staged at Bexar County Grounds. Lots behind the Freeman Coliseum are housing thousands of first responders from across the country. There are about 100 trucks on those lots headed to the coast.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said that they are staged and ready to respond to affected areas.

“They’re loaded up with meals, ready to eat, and medical supplies,” Judge Wolff said.

The state brought in first responders came from across the U.S. to help with rescue and recovery from Harvey.

“We’ve got probably about 1,000 or so first responders that we house here at the Bexar County grounds. We feed them, house them, they have a place to take a shower and everything,” Judge Wolff noted.

KENS 5 spoke with two EMS responders from as far as Las Vegas and South Carolina.



Harvey Shows Progress On Emergency Communications Since Katrina

THE DAMAGE DONE by Hurricane Harvey is, as the National Weather Service, tweeted ominously over the weekend, “unknown & beyond anything experienced.” Rain continues to fall over the water-soaked region of Southeast Texas where the category 4 hurricane made landfall Friday night. It’s a living nightmare already drawing comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.

One comparison offers a glimmer of hope amid the devastation: Communications networks have held much better. While connectivity was almost completely lost in Rockport, Texas, which was hit hardest by the storm, the Federal Communications Commission says just 4 percent of the 7,804 cell sites in Harvey’s path were wiped out, affecting 148,565 people. By contrast, more than 1,000 cell sites were knocked out during Katrina, preventing millions of calls from going through, according to a post-Katrina FCC report.

Now, Texas’s 9-1-1 system has been overloaded with calls, but “those calls are going through,” says Adm. Jamie Barnett, former chief of public safety and homeland security at the FCC. “By and large we’re hearing that the cellular networks stood up. That means there’s been some learning.”

That may come as cold comfort to the families fleeing ruined homes in boats and on floating air mattresses, but it is crucial nonetheless. As central as connectivity has become to our everyday lives, in times of disaster it is a matter of life and death. That’s particularly true of cellular service, as disaster victims use smartphones to send SMS, Twitter, and Facebook notifications about their needs and their whereabouts.

“Communications ranks up there with having fuel in the police cars,” says Trey Forgety director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, 9-1-1’s official professional organization.



First responders rescue West Houston residents

HOUSTON - As unrelenting rains pound Houston, Buffalo Bayou is pouring over the banks in West Houston, flooding the neighborhood nearby.

"I've been here about 15 years in this area. I've never seen the water do this," said Henry Arrilla who came out to look at the rising water Monday afternoon. "It's incredible."

Arrilla said he's hoping for a miracle; that the rain stops and water recedes before it reaches his home.

"We've got about three feet before the water starts coming into our apartment. So again, we're just really hoping that it doesn't rise any higher,'  he said. 

First responders from Nebraska have traveled to the area to help with search and rescue. Crews used FEMA boats to pull people and their pets out of their flooding homes.




Dispatch center at heart of emergency response

By J. Harry Jones, San Diego Union Tribune 

Before cops or firefighters arrive to answer a call for help, it’s the real first responders — the dispatchers — who have laid the groundwork for everything to come.

They go mostly unheralded and unappreciated.

“Nobody ever knows about them or thinks about them,” said Escondido Police Department Communication Manager Martha Ellis, who was a dispatcher for nearly 20 years before being tapped to head the department.

The Escondido dispatch center is unique in the county because both law enforcement and fire calls are handled in the same area. That means no time is wasted transferring calls.

At any time, three to five dispatchers are manning the 911 lines and dispatching police officers and fire personnel.

Annually the center — deep within the new and cavernous Escondido police and fire headquarters built six years ago for $61 million — handles more than 200,000 phone calls, an average of 23 an hour. Of those, roughly 60,000 result in a police officer’s response and 15,000 fire crew dispatches. 



Emergency dispatchers help end armed abduction with text-to-911 program

Tori Fater, The Elkhart Truth

Emergency dispatchers in St. Joseph County were able to foil an armed abduction thanks to a program that lets people text 911 when they need help and cannot make a phone call.

The hostage was able to text dispatchers and give them details about the suspect Wednesday, according to the county’s Public Safety Communications Consortium. Based on the victim's information, police stopped the suspect’s vehicle in Laporte County and freed the victim from danger.

People only have to send a text to 911 to use the service, called TexTTY. This was the first substantiated "citizen in need of service” to use text-to-911 in St. Joseph County since the program was implemented in December, public safety authorities said, though dispatchers have received 273 texts since it started.



Mississippi first responders learn battlefield medical techniques

By Kaitlin Mullins, The Daily Leader

This week, local law enforcement officers and first responders participated in a course that applies lessons learned in the battlefield to emergencies at home.

The course teaches the people who are first on the “tactical” scene — almost always law enforcement — the quick and dirty ways to keep the injured alive until they can exit what is called “the hot zone.”

“We’ve always taught civilian EMS to soldiers, now we’ve flipped the script and we’re teaching violent, or tactical, medicine back into the civilian setting,” said Mickee Ramsey, a field training officer and tactical paramedic with American Medical Response Central Mississippi Operation in Jackson. The class was sponsored and funded by the Central Mississippi Trauma Region and co-sponsored and co-funded by the Southwest Trauma Region, with instructors from AMR in Jackson as well as AMR-Natchez.



Sebastian County Woman Assists In Saving Lives On The Grind

By Kate Jordan at The Southwest Times Record

Renee Nichols was on the phone when she heard a caller scream, “Please help her, she’s dying! This little girl is dying!” after the vehicle she was riding in was hit by a drunken driver.

Keeping an equal balance of calmness and professionalism, Nichols knew what the deputies on their way did not; that the little girl, who was about 6, had been ejected from her booster seat and might be dying in the arms of a passer-by.

And knowing this, she began painting a portrait of the scene for the deputies en route because she is the communications coordinator for the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office.

“We may be listening to two different conversations, one in each ear, and we have to process them both,” Nichols said.

In all, she is the voice that many hear, but few will ever see her face.