Flood reveals major gaps in city’s response


KXAN Investigates // A three-month long KXAN Investigation revealed concerns and possible deficiencies in Austin-Travis County’s emergency response during the 2013 floods that claimed five lives. It raises questions of how ready the city is ready for another, large-scale disaster and what emergency managers can learn from the last one.

Among the findings, KXAN discovered:

  • Call center managers briefly reduced staff during the early part of October’s rain/flood event
  • Concerns that a limited number of rescue boats put firefighters’ lives at risk
  • The first reverse 911 messages warning of flooding went out after 7 a.m., well after most victims had woken up with water already in or nearing their home
  • In the days after the floods, city leaders would admit to some system failures because of the storm, including the collapse of two US Geological Survey gauges used to measure water height along Onion Creek.

“The water is up
to my yard and it may
be too late to get out!”

The voice on the 911 line was that of a woman on Ladybug Street in South Austin’s Onion Creek neighborhood. It was after 6 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, and she had just woken up to a surreal site. The Austin Fire Department call-taker would complete the horrifying scenario.

“Ma’am,” he told her, “we’ve got several hundred people trapped in that neighborhood.”

Another shaky-voiced, nearby caller told a Travis County Sheriff’s Office call-taker she needed the fire department to come rescue her. Her voice turned panicky when the call went directly to a sterile-sounding, pre-recorded message:

‘You have reached Austin 911. Please don’t hang up.’

“Oh God!” she wailed as the Sheriff’s call taker reminded her, “They’re getting lots of calls. They’re already coming to that area.”

Trapped in the flood and stuck in the 911 queue

Questions: How many 911 callers were there on the morning of the flood? How many ended up waiting in the call queue, and how long did each caller wait?

Police and other call center managers are not publicly sharing overall response time data until the city’s final After Action Review, or AAR, is published sometime later this winter. Police also cite public safety and privacy concerns.

But the picture on Halloween morning becomes more clear once flood victims who called Austin 911 were transferred to Austin Fire Department. At the peak of the flood, between 5 and 8 a.m., AFD records show its call center received more than 350 calls.

Caller on Onion Creek Dr.: ‘Our house is flooding, and my husband is paralyzed. It’s a first floor house. Right now it’s past my ankles to my knees. He’s in a hospital bed.’
AFD: We have units at least aware. We have 100s of calls. They’ll do the best we can.’

Of the 350 callers, Austin Fire Department staff estimate at least 250 spent some time waiting for a live person to help them with advice on escaping, sheltering from the floodwater or to take their address for rescue.

Through Open Records requests, KXAN found examples of 911 calls transferred from both Austin 911 and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office call center to Austin Fire. One caller whose home was flooding waited in the queue for 10 minutes.

The county call taker suggested there could be a problem with the queue system and stayed on the line during that unusually long wait and kept the caller as calm as possible. Staying on the line until a transferred emergency call is answered is protocol in Austin, fire officials say.

KXAN’s 911 sample revealed other callers were held in queue for two to three minutes. When they did get through, some of their calls were gripping. One man described hearing the screams of horses drowning. Another, a caretaker for an elderly woman, said her 91-year-old client was bedridden and water was in the room. Yet another victim was panicked that the water was up to her front door and thought she was going to drown. The call-taker asked her in all seriousness if she knew how to swim.

KXAN confirmed with Austin’s Fire Department its system, like all at the region’s Emergency Communication Center, is able to keep track of the number of callers on hold at any given time, but during the Oct. 31 floods, there appeared to be no specific protocol or list of questions in place to know the urgency of the situation any one caller was facing. That might have been due to the sheer number of calls flooding the center.

One Onion Creek flood victim gave up on Austin 911 and got advice from Williamson County officials.

“We [were] on the phone with my stepmother who lives in Georgetown. She was on the phone with Williamson [County] 911 because we couldn’t get through to Austin 911,” said John Subocz. “We were doing a back door relay, and they were telling her to tell us to get out on the roof.” (Story continues below)


Troubling 911 center vacancies

“They don’t care,” said City of Austin Public Service Commission Member Mike Levy. He was referring to his view of city hall decision makers when it comes to public safety priorities.

“We’ve gone 10 years without any increase in [911 center] call takers,” said Levy. “And today, with so many vacancies, we probably have less than we had 10 years ago even though the city has grown exponentially, and the call volume is way up.”

Call volumes are expected to top 1 million in 2014 or 2015. City records show annual increases over the last three years:

Austin 911 Center annual call volume
(from City of Austin):
  • 2013  —   939,659
  • 2012  —   915,593
  • 2011   —   795,537

The steady increase comes at a time when city staffing records show seven call-taker vacancies in December 2013 and six dispatcher openings. That does not include 11 temporary call-takers filling six other positions.

“So what you have is fewer and fewer experienced call takers who know how to manage … a complex call,” said Levy.

Despite the shortage and a turnover rate at 30 percent, call center management records show 90 percent of the time Austin’s call center is meeting or exceeding national standards for answering emergency calls made directly to Austin 911.

Throughout 2012, responses to emergency calls within the set goal of less than 10 seconds averaged 97 percent.

But by May of last year, the average dropped to the mid-90 percent range. By August, it dipped below the national standard of 90 percent. Looked at another way, nearly 1,700 callers (or 2 percent) waited one minute or more on hold.

The high volume of calls that came in to Austin 911 during the historic flood knocked down that month’s response goal, where 86 percent of calls were answered within 10 seconds. Through that month, 1,800 callers, or 3.7 percent, waited more than 60 seconds to be helped.

Enough call takers?

How many extra 911 call-takers and dispatchers were brought in during the Oct. 31 floods? Again, Austin Police would only say those numbers will be part of the City’s After Action Review.

To get an idea of how many staff ‘could’ have been on duty that Wednesday night into Thursday morning when Onion Creek flooded, we referred to a 2011 internal audit report on Austin 911.

Communications 2011 Report Final Version May 2012 used 2010 call volumes to determine minimum staffing levels to achieve response time goals:

  • A minimum of 16 emergency call takers would need to work the Wednesday 7 p.m.-10 p.m. shift
  • 13 would need to work the Wednesday 10 p.m.-3 a.m. shift
  • 8 would need to work the Thursday 3 a.m.-6 a.m. shift

It is unknown if those numbers reflect actual staffing on Oct. 31, 2013. The audit found:

  • There are 19 consoles dedicated to taking 911 calls
  • An additional 10 consoles can also take 911 calls

KXAN did receive call taker information specific to the flood event from EMS and AFD:

October 30:

  • Before the flood there were seven personnel (three to four call takers) working
  • 7:30 p.m., a page was sent out for more personnel
  • 8:30 p.m., staff numbered 10 (four to five call takers)

October 31:

  • 3 a.m., staff was scaled back to eight (three to four call takers) on the belief the rain was ending
  • 5 a.m., a second page for more personnel was made
  • 7 a.m., shift change. Staff held over to total 13 personnel (6+ call takers)
  • 8 a.m., personnel totaled 15+
  • 12:20 p.m., personnel reduced to eight

A staffing information request made to Austin-Travis County EMS for Oct. 31 shows five communication medics were held over from the overnight shift at 7 a.m., for a total of 13 personnel.  A 14th person was added at 11 a.m.

Since AFD’s call center can handle up to 12 call takers and dispatchers at once (with one spare position), there were a few empty seats during the flood. The AAR may recommend more staffing — and overtime allowances — for predicted events that may turn major and destructive. The problem is interpreting the severity of the event.

Firefighters’ lives were at undue risk: Austin Fire Association President

One of those recommendations will come from Austin Fire Association’s President Bob Nicks. He was a fire vehicle driver in the 1991 Dove Creek floods. He said responders then could have used more rescue boats, and the story was the same last fall in Onion Creek.

In his role as union president, Nicks said he was the Incident Commander for the Pinehurst Command the morning of Oct. 31.

Unit 10C919Rising waters had already flooded out at least one Austin Police patrol car and damaged several others. That prompted incident commanders in four separate areas of South Austin to tell responding police officers to stay put since the dangerous waters were unpredictable and filled with debris.

Nicks told KXAN as he arrived on scene, Onion Creek waters covering streets and lawns had already cut him off from three of his rescue crews. He called for boats. He would not receive any for more than two hours since they were being used at larger flood scenes elsewhere.

“Having boats on scene would have been a big comfort to me as Incident Commander,” said Nicks. “The troubling thing is [those crews] were cut off, and if the water was to rise, like some of our intelligence was showing, it would have been pretty dire.”

Fortunately, the water did not rise above most single story rooftops in Onion Creek neighborhoods before receding later that morning. Austin Fire Rescue crews made 380 water rescues. HSEM Incident Reports show some of those were made with high-clearance dump trucks borrowed from Travis County.

Some people would wait five to six hours to be plucked off their rooftops or vehicle beds.

Hours earlier, before midnight on Oct. 30, Austin fire resources were directed to Pflugerville where 34 people were evacuated from flooding property, including 10 by boat.

“My house is flooded.We’re
standing in the back of a
pickup truck, and we’re gonna
die if  you don’t come and get us.”

Female 911 caller located
on Bluff Springs Road

AFD’s total rescue number does not include several dozen others made by responding Texas Game Wardens – an under recognized arm of the state’s Parks & Wildlife Department who underwent updated swift water rescue training as recently as August.  (ATCEMS Swift Water Instructions – requires .pdf reader)

Game Wardens with hoist training also worked with DPS helicopter crews in Hays, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties on rescue response and operations, including the search and recovery of deceased victims, officials said.

“Look, man, the water’s coming up real quick. I don’t know if we need the helicopter or what,” one caller in the Pinehurst neighborhood told 911.

Star Flight helicopter crews plucked 32 people and four dogs from the high water that day, according to Travis County records. While AFD’s Bob Nicks applauds the helicopters’ abilities to get people out of the highest-risk situations like trees or cars, he said rigid-hull inflatable rescue boats are more effective at helping more people due to being small and agile.

Planning for next time

Austin Fire Department has four swift-water rescue boats. Each was bought in 2008, and in early January this year, they were repositioned around the city for quicker access to flood prone areas, like Onion Creek, and Bull Creek in Northwest Austin.

These changes will be laid out in a comprehensive report the Austin Fire Department is finalizing into the reorganization of its Special Operations Unit. It’s due out in February. The report was commissioned in August, before the Halloween floods.

Fire department records show in fiscal year 2014, its Special Operations Unit intends to spend $35,000 on new equipment and $20,000 on training. For the Fire Association president, the ‘Spec Ops’ report and new money could be the very light at the end of the tunnel he’s hoping for.

“There were thousands of things that went right,” Bob Nicks said. “But what we didn’t have were more resources [boats] and trained operators.”

Nicks’ point is driven home by the story of the father and his two grown sons who went out on their own to rescue dozens of their Onion Creek neighbors. They used two small boats of their own and were recognized as heroes last year by Austin Police.

Christian Martinez told KXAN’s Angie Beavin, “I didn’t want to see people suffer. I didn’t even think about it. We were here to help people,” he said.

Nicks also suggests longer term, Austin Fire adopt a similar approach to readying for floods as the department now does for wildfires.

When the forecast calls for violent weather and goes under a National Weather Service ‘red flag’ warning, trained AFD crews are staged in strategic areas with appropriate equipment like brush trucks that can go off road. The same, he says, could be done when heavy flooding is a possibility, like staging water rescue boats in low lying areas.

Ample Warning?

Austin’s Homeland Security & Emergency Management Department is producing the city’s After Action Review. Senior city and county staff, who didn’t want to be identified, said a city-wide ‘no comment’ policy has been put on any managers connected with public safety so the city’s flood response message can be consistent in the AAR.

Read the HSEM Situation Reports from October 31

photo 1_1383356242837_3909212_ver1.0_640_480“We are still in recovery mode,” said one staffer in January. “So now is not the time to do media interviews.”

A HSEM memo KXAN obtained shows individual departments such as police, fire and EMS, along with other, less visible departments like Public Works, Watershed Protection and Austin Resource Recovery will have to submit individual reports by Feb. 1.

Those will be compiled into the final review to be presented to full council and staff. Those elected officials may receive or make a series of recommendations on how to improve disaster response, specifically flood response for the next time Austin goes under water.

Other issues the review may delve into is how much warning homeowners had before flood waters washed away their properties and belongings. The City of Austin’s After Action Review team is expected to hold an initial hearing in late February, according to a memo from HSEM.

KXAN issued a weather prediction as early as Oct. 29 that unusually heavy amounts of rainfall were on their way Travis County. By noon on Oct. 30, KXAN meteorologists predicted 9-12 inches of heavy rainfall localized to Central Travis County.

Early on the 30th, the National Weather Service issued a Flash Flood Watch calling for up to five inches of rain locally later that day.

About 24 hours later, early on Oct. 31, as water breached her front door, one angry 911 caller screamed at an AFD call taker, “You guys were supposed to warn us of evacuating before it was so bad we couldn’t get out!”

Sources inside AFD say on the morning Onion Creek broached its banks, few people heard any loudspeaker warnings. Only civilian car and truck horns would wake up some people, according to victims KXAN interviewed at the time.

There was reverse 911, but only for those who had registered with the free regional government service.

KXAN learned four repeating messages were sent out from The Capital Area Council of Governments, or CAPCOG, to phones in the immediate flood zone. But they were sent only after 7 a.m., when the flood damage was mostly done. Two messages went out after 9 a.m.:

  • At 7:09 a.m., a notification was initiated to 7,735 telephone lines with a duration of one hour;
  • At 7:19 a.m., a notification was initiated to 7,735 telephone lines with a duration of one hour;
  • At 9:29 a.m., a notification was initiated to 123 telephone lines with a duration of one hour;
  • At 9:55 a.m., a Spanish language notification was initiated to 223 telephone lines with a duration of one hour.

The reverse 911 program was introduced to Austin in 2006 and 6,000 people registered their cell phones, public safety officials confirmed. By 2011, 60,000 cell phones were registered.

In mid-January, CAPCOG announced upgrades to the reverse 911 system, now renamed the “regional emergency notification system,” or RNS. A media release said “The New RNS includes capacity to send messages by email or text and — eventually — Twitter and Facebook. Residents can register their cellphones, landlines, email addresses, pagers and other devices that receive text-based messages.”

Apart from the 911 Center and reverse 911, KXAN found emails that pointed to the stressful environment at the Regional Emergency Operations Center.

The afternoon of Oct. 31, Hector Guerrero, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service Forecast Office in San Angelo, Texas, sent an email to staff at the EOC.

Like NOAA, the City of Austin and Travis County are members of the Texas Flash Flood Coalition, or TFFC.

Dear TFFC Friends,

Sure hope you are alright. I heard and saw the pictures of the devastating flash flood this morning from several of my family members who live in Austin. I heard flooding occurred north and southwest of Austin in that usual area. So far I haven’t heard of any fatalities, and sure hope it stays that way.

Thank you for saving lives.

Soon after, Travis County Emergency Management Coordinator Pete Baldwin sent Guerrero this sobering reply.

‘This particular round of rain hit Onion Creek the hardest in SE Austin/Travis County and Gilleland Creek around Pflugerville. Onion Creek crested at 41 feet with flood stage being at 23 feet. It has steadily declined since late this morning. At this time we have three people that have not been accounted for by family or friends. I will try to keep you posted as we work through this.’

Around Central Texas, seven people lost their lives that day, five in Travis County.

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