911 Commander: ‘We could have done better’ during flood

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For the first time in a public forum leaders at Austin’s 911 center, and other emergency agencies, acknowledged mistakes and misjudgments were made during last October’s deadly Onion Creek flood.

911 Commander Julie O’Brien told commissioners at Monday’s Austin Public Safety Commission meeting that staff at various agencies, including the 911 center, had much the same experience in the dark hours before the flood.

After midnight the wave of predicted heavy rainfall and the calls for rescue from isolated spots in Pflugerville eased off for a couple hours.

“When the calls reduced and there was nothing specific saying, ‘Hey there’s a wall of water,’ it created a false sense of reassurance that the worst had passed,” O’Brien said in her presentation designed to outline the 911 center response.

It’s part of a draft report into the state of the region’s 911 center that the Austin Police Department plans to make public once the chief signs off on it, senior police executives told KXAN on Monday. The other part will address staffing needs.

On the morning Onion Creek flooded, O’Brien also revealed there was no operations plan or disaster protocol in place for 911 managers. The FEMA-backed incident command system ensures there is one trained leader who can coordinate decisions.

Without that, O’Brien said the on-duty staff were left scrambling as calls increased steadily after 4:30 a.m. What’s more, call takers had little idea of what advice to give to frantic flood victims calling in or where to direct them as Austin Fire Department call takers themselves became overwhelmed.

Using 911 call recordings from Oct. 31 obtained through an open records request, KXAN first reported the long hold times in January.

Call takers spending longer times with each caller complicated an already stressful situation. Some were frantic with fear, spending an average of 197 seconds on the line. That is 86 seconds longer than a ‘normal’ 911 call.

O’Brien said 128 calls were ‘abandoned,’ meaning call takers had to call back to ensure the caller was able to give their location and condition.

Lastly, O’Brien confirmed four call taking staff were held over from an overnight shift. But she acknowledged another seven who were allowed to go home after working a 10 p.m. – 6 a.m. shift would have helped ease the call taking crisis, though not completely.

“Even if every single 911 console was staffed to our full capacity, we would not have been able to keep up with 439 calls coming in, in one hour,” “O’Brien pointed out.

By 6 a.m. on Oct 31, 12 relief call takers arrived bringing the total during the height of the flood to 16. By 9 a.m., the number was permitted to drop back to 12 as call volumes decreased with the water levels.

Stark numbers reveal overwhelmed 911 call center

O’Brien released actual 911 data for the first time on Monday, and the numbers are stark. Remember, 911 call center across the U.S. strive to answer 90 percent of all calls in less than 10 seconds. Austin’s call center has stayed above that standard for at least the last 24 months – except for October 2013.

Halloween morning between 6-9 a.m., Austin 911 received 1,567 calls. Of those callers, 998, or 64 percent, were put on hold.

The 6 a.m. hour was the worst: 439 calls compared to an average of 44, O’Brien said. That’s an answer rate of 11.9 percent.  More than 150 people waited more than two minutes for an operator to answer the line that morning.

Like 911, Austin’s Fire Department measured the need to scale back the flood emergency based on call volume as opposed to ground level assessments. Overnight staff were told to go home only to be recalled hours later after the worst of the flooding.

“That was not a valid measure,” AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans told commissioners.

But emergency services were working blind to get a sense of how quickly the water was rising. United States Geological Survey flood gauges upstream from the worst-hit neighborhoods ceased functioning as the waters rose to a record 41 feet above normal.

 ‘Chaos’

Less sympathy came from Commissioner Mike Levy who called the flood response ‘chaos.’ He called to task chiefs of staff from police, fire and EMS. Levy asked why the region’s Emergency Operations Center was not opened until 6 a.m. on Oct. 31 when flood rescues, including several by STARFlight, were already underway before midnight around eastern Travis County.

EMS Chief of Staff James Shamad admitted the EOC could have opened earlier. “We were playing catch up,” he told commissioners.

At several points in Monday’s meeting Levy also held up a copy of Austin’s Basic Emergency Operations Plan. He asked the city’s ‘top brass’ why April’s After Action Report made no mention of how well or poorly the operation plan’s level of Emergency Trigger Matrix worked.

The Matrix is a 7-stage guide where level one is a normal day, and a seven outlines the factors that would be present during an all-out terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

The Onion Creek flood ranked as a ’3′ since more than 50 homes were evacuated. In fact, Austin Fire, EMS, the county’s STARFlight would rescue several hundred homeowners, tenants and their pets over several long hours that morning.

The path ahead

In short, this rare event all but sidelined what is supposed to be a top line 911 agency. O’Brien wants it to resume that status. She told commissioners straight up, “We could have done better.”

Already completed — or in the works — are plans to give information and advice sheets to call takers for various disaster scenarios. O’Brien pointed out it was not the best advice to tell an infirm grandmother to ‘get to her rooftop.’

And fire officials pointed out earlier in the year, the only fatalities in the flood were of people who were trying to flee the area that were washed away in their vehicles. Now, they’re advising ‘shelter in place’ can often be a better solution.

Not that that message got out to flood victims via their landlines or cell phones until after 7 a.m. the morning of the flood. Austin Fire Department Chief of Staff Harry Evans told commissioners the region’s ‘First Call’ 911 central notification system was not used as it should have been. He’s made a commitment to ensure there’s no repeat. Future alerts will also go out in both English and Spanish.

The morning of the flood AFD had four rescue boats and one evacuation craft. It’s budgeting for two more rubber rescue boats, money to train crews and to possibly acquire six more evacuation craft.

Earlier this year the fire department repositioned the existing water craft closer to flood-prone areas. There is also a commitment to stage crews ahead of time — known as ‘blue flag’ days — when severe weather is expected. The move is in line with ‘red flag’ fire danger days the department’s wildfire division and its six brush trucks currently use.

911 leaders won’t speak to their budget wish list, but O’Brien told KXAN she will present a multi-year funding model to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo for fiscal year 2015 and beyond. Staff have pitched new callers and dispatchers for the 911 center each of the last two budget cycles only to have Acevedo decide on different spending priorities.

A 2011 audit of the 911 center noted there had been no real hiring at the facility for a decade, leading to worker burnout and more overtime spending.

Another KXAN investigation revealed a call center pilot project to cut call taker hours to save as much as $630,000 in overtime in 2013. Records show a 60-day review period was approved by senior police executives, including Acevedo. KXAN learned that staffing initiative which began in June 2013 was still underway on the morning of the flood. It was phased out soon afterward.

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