City’s flood reports omit 911 call wait-time numbers

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The early morning flood that claimed four lives in Travis County last Oct. 31 also overwhelmed the city’s 911 call center and public safety leaders knew it, records show.

But reading the new final After Action Report into the flood and the accompanying report from Austin Police, it’s easy to believe the emergency call system worked seamlessly.

The documents make no mention of extended 911 call wait times during the deadly flood. The APD report only  states:

  • More than 2,000 people called 911 during the 24 hours of October 31
  • The city’s non-emergency information line 311, received twice the call volume ‘and was able to maintain satisfactory call center service levels.’

A KXAN Investigation in February first revealed the 911 system was unable to handle the call volume the morning of the flood. A draft response to a KXAN Open Records request in January between communications managers showed more than 1,000 callers were put on hold, more than 150 people waited more than two minutes for an operator to answer the line.

A subsequent KXAN investigation revealed a call center pilot project to cut call taker hours to save as much as $630,000 in overtime in 2013. Newly obtained records show a 60-day review period was approved by senior police executives, including Chief Art Acevedo.

KXAN has since learned that staffing initiative which began in June 2013 was still underway on the morning of the flood. It was phased out soon afterward.

In March, Austin public safety commissioners were outraged they had not heard of the overtime saving plan – a deliberate reduction in service levels where 90 percent of all 911 calls were being still picked up in less than 10 seconds, an industry standard.

In March, Commissioner Mike Levy told KXAN “After seeing your report, I’m saddened, I’m angry, I’m frustrated.”

City public safety leaders have said a rare event like a flood or major traffic incident can easily inundate call center lines and it was to be expected the same the morning Onion Creek flooded.

No staffing numbers

Despite that spike in call volume, the After Action Reports also make no mention of how many 911 call taking staff were there the night before or how many stayed over or were moved off of 311 duties. It also did not include information on whether the staffing numbers were sufficient or if more could or should have been called in quickly.

Mike Levy said he was expecting the city’s After Action Report would include actions about what did not work at the call center and offer recommendations on how to prepare or improve 911 staffing levels before a big weather event, or disaster.

The Austin Police report’s conclusion is brief, recommending improvements in the way the Department Operations Center communicated as well as a plan to buy a rescue basket for APD’s new helicopter. It did not have the capacity to help in evacuations during the flood as the county’s StarFlight helicopters do. Their pilots made 32 rescues on October 31 according to county records.

APD’s report also showed some police officers’ life vests did not have working emergency beacons when they arrived to help with rescues. It is not clear if that reduced the number of first responders available.

Months of requests

Beginning in November, KXAN repeatedly asked the city’s police chief of staff, the fire department chief of staff and the city manager’s staff for a formal explanation of the long hold times and other issues related to the flood response.

It became clear soon after the flood that assistant city manager, and the city’s top public safety official, Michael McDonald, would control the citywide message.

That was reflected in emails from senior police and fire dept communications staff responding to numerous interview requests:

  • ‘We’re still in recovery mode…’  – November  20th, 2013
  • ‘We’re still working on our lessons learned….’ -November 20th, 2013
  • ‘Chief McDonald’s moratorium on discussing this item is still in effect.’ – March 19th 2014

All staff said their bosses would sit down with KXAN once the final After Action Report was released. It’s a promise KXAN is following up on.

Another thread in the emails KXAN obtained includes a note in early January from Asst. Chief Jessica Robledo who oversees police communication to her 911 liaison Cmdr. Julie Obrien: ‘I just found out….we are holding off on this (interview with KXAN) again…. But this is a work in progress.’

Robledo never indicated who told her to hold off on that media interview.

Assistant Chief Robledo’s direct boss is Police Chief Art Acevedo. His boss is McDonald.

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