Mistake kept hundreds from getting flood notification

AUSTIN (KXAN) – As the level of Onion Creek rose in Thursday morning’s heavy rains so did stress levels among Austin’s Police Communications Command Center. One member in a rush, missed a step before sending out an Emergency Notification recording to several hundred cell phone and land line subscribers in the immediate area of the Creek that flooded less than a year ago, police officials wrote in an email.

At 6:42 a.m., and again at 6:54 a.m. before Onion Creek eventually crested at 21 feet Sept 18th, Police sent out the voice message to 429 self-subscribed residents in the same southeast Austin neighborhood ravaged by flood waters October 31st, 2013.The message in English and Spanish said, ‘The City is monitoring the water flow for Onion Creek. The water continues to rise but has not reached flood stage at this time. Residents are advised to take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety. Should the creek reach flood stage, a warning message will follow.’

But when the wrong recording played – one from last week about a missing person, Communications staff learned a valuable lesson in not rushing in sending out the alerts.

‘The explanation for the incorrect recording is user error,’ the email read. ‘The APD Communications Command Center personnel who sent the message recorded it…then tried to send it out as a “Customized Call” instead of a standard text-to-speech call… What was in the queue was the last properly recorded customized message.’

A correct text message did get out to hundreds of people – telling them Onion Creek had not risen to flood stage. And a warning would be sent out if it did.

Refresher training in how to properly send out ENS voice recordings is planned, the email noted. And with severe weather still in the area over the next 48 hours, a specific person will handled all ENS notifications, the email noted.

KXAN learned of the potentially serious communications mistake after requesting an audio copy of the ENS message so you could listen to it on this site. It was a black eye on an otherwise clean emergency response during up to seven inches of overnight rains that served as a test of new protocols recommended in the Halloween flood After Action Report released in April.

On KXAN’s request, police officials provided response numbers. Emergency staff were busy:

839 calls received Thursday between midnight and 8am (average call volume 377)
152 the peak load between 5am and 6am
0 the number of callers in that hour who waited longer than 10 seconds (a 100% response rate)
200 callers transferred to Austin Fire Dispatch
4 water rescues (with EMS, One Starflight airlift)
8 flood assists
12 structure fires (8 caused by lightning strikes)

A year of flood-related coverage

It appeared to be a drastic improvement after the Halloween flood where AFD sent staff home before the worst flooding and call loads. KXAN also revealed how Austin 9-1-1 managers extended a pilot project to save overtime funds by cutting back call taker hours. The plan was in place during the morning of the Oct 31st flood when call response times dropped to 24-month lows and callers were left on hold longer – some for minutes. It’s not believed anyone who lost their life in October was due to being left on hold.

KXAN also reported last spring on the contents of a draft version of a report aimed at highlighting issues inside Austin 9-1-1. It called for more call taker positions to relieve not only overtime pressures, but issues with burn-out and staff quitting for less stressful private call center jobs. A final version of the Report is ‘approved for release’ Asst. Chief Brian Manley told commissioners at the Sept 12th Austin Public Safety Commission meeting.

Earlier this month, City Council Members approved 21 new call taking positions at Austin 911. They will be funded from unused dollars connected to vacancies elsewhere in last year’s police budget. Also approved in the FY15 budget, more than $100,000 on public flood awareness programs.

KXAN also obtained Thursday’s two summary update reports from the Emergency Operations Center showing it went into full activation at 2am on the 18th – a good three hours before the peak call load hit the City’s 911 center. In the Oct. 2013 flood, even though Austin flood protection staff were in place — there were questions if the rest of the EOC activated soon enough as homes began flooding.

Complicating matters then — two flood gauges washed away, leaving emergency responders blind for hours to how fast waters were rising. In June, KXAN reported how those gauges have since been reinforced and along Williamson Creek, moved to higher ground. Other gauges have also been added to Brushy Creek in Williamson County to the north.

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