Chief: Police report to shed light on 911 flood response, call center issues

AUSTIN (KXAN) –  An apology from Police Chief Art Acevedo over the city’s response to the Onion Creek floods in October is not new. Four people died in Travis County. Hundreds lost their homes and property.

Soon after the disaster, Acevedo told a community gathering he was sorry the city and its equipment, such as flood gauges that broke in the storm, failed to give adequate warning of the rising water in Southeast Austin neighborhoods.

But this is the first time in several years Chief Art Acevedo is publicly talking about taking a fresh look at the failings at the city’s 911 call center. KXAN found out about the plans for a new communications report as part of our ongoing investigation into the Halloween flood.

Last Friday, the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department released its flood report into what went right and what didn’t.

It is a compilation of staff reviews and ‘corrective actions’ from numerous city departments, along with Travis County and outside agencies. But nowhere was there any mention of how an overwhelmed 911 center in the early morning of Oct. 31 left more than 1,000 callers on hold – some for longer than two minutes as their living rooms filled with an overflowing Onion Creek.

Nor was there any mention of whether there was enough staff working that morning and what might be done to fix that in a future weather disaster where there is a chance call volumes will spike.

Information omitted from report on purpose

KXAN first reported in February about the call wait time problem. Now Acevedo says that information was left out of the police and city flood reports on purpose.

“We’re going to make that a separate piece of our response and our report back,” Acevedo told KXAN Investigator Robert Maxwell on Wednesday, adding the plan had been talked about among senior police executives for months before the flood reports were drafted.

The Chief’s revelation comes a day after KXAN reported the apparent omission of the key 911 center data in the flood reports which were posted nearly six months after the flood itself.

Acevedo’s new report is expected to be sent to the mayor and council and could be similar to a police communications division audit conducted in 2011. It found the 911 call center had brought on no new staff in more than a decade.

That led to high turn over levels and staff burning out and quitting. In the end, that kind of loss can cost an agency far more since it has to find, hire and train a replacement for what many public safety professionals consider a stressful job. New state telecommunicator licensing rules make that even tougher task.

In the ensuing years after that 2011 audit, tight budgets and other public safety priorities such as hiring forensics specialists to reduce case backlogs and more officers to work hot crime spots downtown, have meant call center pleas to add civilian staff have not ended up in funding requests.

In FY 2013 city email records show call center managers wanted to ask for about 35 call taking and dispatch staff. None were hired. Records show the FY 2014 budget also included no new hires, despite a request to bring on training staff so call takers doing those jobs could move back to the front line.

‘Desperate’ staffing situation

Months before that council funding decision, call taker sources KXAN spoke with called the staffing situation ‘desperate.’

That’s why this June the chief approved a plan to cut call taker overtime. It resulted in 911 callers being put on hold longer. Chief Acevedo also admitted to KXAN the plan was supposed to end after 60 days but mistakenly continued through last October, including during Onion Creek flood.

The initiative was phased out last fall even though the staffing levels were kept at a level where call center response guidelines were maintained, police staff said.

The chief denies the smaller 911 staff affected the flood response.

“My budget is my budget,” said Acevedo. “People were left on hold. But for a 10 second hold (due to moving overtime dollars elsewhere), you had a huge reduction in violent crime. You have to balance it somewhere.”

Acevedo also denied the overtime cut initiative was politically motivated in a bid to score more overtime dollars from city managers this year.

“Absolutely not. We manage what’s based in front of us based on threats. We identify threats, we identify needs every year,” said Acevedo.

And in case Austinites did not hear the apology at that community meeting in November, Acevedo repeated it Wednesday.

“We failed to have a self recognition of the (flood) threat. And for that, there’s only one person who takes responsibility, and that’s me. I’m the police chief, I should have been a little more proactive,” he said, adding no more 911 staff members were called in Oct 31.

He said that taught him a lesson which was applied during subsequent ice storms this winter where police took on an ‘all hands on deck’ philosophy.

The new police communication division report will be out this spring and Acevedo said it will pull no punches. (Story continues below)

911 system problems continue

Included will be a review of the 5-month-old Solacom 911 system which has gone down on at least two occasions. The most major incident came Dec. 16 when a backup server was undergoing maintenance. Austin 911 calls were rerouted to Pflugerville and Round Rock.

And just last Friday, April 11, and into Saturday morning, police sources say the system rebooted after believing there had been a crash. Nearly two dozen calls were left on hold or hung up. And call center staff could not hear callers, sources say.

Acevedo promised next week he would express his displeasure with contractor and CAPCOG, the local intergovernmental agency that brought in the Solacom system for about $5 million, according to CAPCOG. It is supposed to be ‘next generation’ 911 allowing for text and internet messaging with people. Those components have yet to be activated, 911 staff said.

It is expected the city flood response reports will dominate the next meeting of the Austin Public Safety Commission. It is set to meet May 5.

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