Hurricane Harvey: Inside the PSAP, Part 4 - To Serve and Protect

Rounding out our four-part series on the heroic efforts of Texas PSAP personnel during Hurricane Harvey is our story on the counties served by the Brazos Valley Council of Governments. We are again proud to say these communities are all served by our VESTA® 9-1-1 Call Handling solution.

NOTE: Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

We thank the individuals who took time to speak with us for each of the stories. To you and all the Calltakers and Dispatchers who work behind the scenes to take our 9-1-1 calls, we know you are "the gold link that holds us all together." We stand in awe of what you do every day. Thank you.

The Brazos Valley Council of Governments (BVCOG), located in east-central Texas, represents the counties located in Texas's Brazos Valley region, which is home to over 315,000 citizens and spans 5,109 square miles.

One of the services BVCOG provides is to maintain a regional 9-1-1 program, which oversees the planning, implementation, hardware and software upgrades and financial responsibilities of the 9-1-1 service for the PSAPs in Burleson, Grimes, Leon, Madison, Robertson and Washington counties. The service includes the network, database and equipment necessary to properly route 9-1-1 calls. The program is also the primary resource for the counties' addressing, database maintenance and mapping services.

In short, BVCOG provides the tools these PSAPs need to answer approximately 119,682 calls with over 82% originating from a wireless phone, annually.

The experience of the counties served by BVCOG during Hurricane Harvey was not the same as what we covered in parts 1, 2 and 3 of our series. These communities did not take a direct hit like the cities of Victoria and Dickinson or Galveston County. They did not have a big influx of calls. The region's southernmost county is located only 77 miles from Houston, so they did have some flooding - still, nothing like the Houston area.

But, one similarity stands out. The BVCOG PSAPs and their communities banded together to help save lives during Hurricane Harvey. Their efforts made a difference for many people in need.

To get their stories, we had the benefit of speaking with Anita Pitt, BVCOG's 9-1-1 Program Manager, and representatives of several of the counties BVCOG serves. Here is their story.

Two Key Activities for Effective Preparation

Anita has led BVCOG's 9-1-1 Program for 32 years, giving her invaluable knowledge and experience on how to prepare for disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Yet, those who know her know the assets she brings to her job are irreplaceable. Her leadership and the level of care she gives the operations and people of the PSAPs BVCOG serves are extraordinary.

That's why, when Harvey was approaching, Anita touched base with her PSAP officials to make sure everyone was ready. She said, "On that Sunday, when we knew Harvey was hitting and still weren't sure if it was headed for us or not, I sent an email to the PSAP Supervisors, checking in, making sure they had what they needed. All responded back that they were good. It's critical to keep the lines of communication open."

Communication is the first of two key activities Anita says are necessary to ensure effective preparation and response in any situation.

The second is maintaining current documentation, which is why she developed a continuity plan for operational guidance in an emergency. And, she has kept it up-to-date over the years. "It needs to be a living, growing document and as lessons are learned and resources and technology change, it needs to be updated."

The document identifies BVCOG's 9-1-1 Program's central functions and all the data and resources necessary to keep the PSAPs running 24/7. Most importantly, it identifies what to do to if a resource or data is no longer available. This is found in the continuity plan's Emergency Preparation Manual.

"We open trouble tickets with our phone. But what if we don't have phone service? What about bills? If we can't generate a check request, what do we do? During Harvey, the mail stopped for three weeks. How do we avoid late payments?" asked Anita. These are just some of the questions the Emergency Preparation Manual addresses.

Other important questions include:

  • Are all vehicles fueled?
  • What are the mobile numbers for the supervisors at each of the PSAPs?
  • What are the IP addresses and circuit IDs for the network?
  • What are the contact numbers for equipment and network vendors?
  • If a PSAP is damaged and has to evacuate, what is the evacuation plan?
  • Where is the back-up equipment a PSAP may need?
  • If remote access from a laptop is required, do I have all the information I need for access?
  • Do the PSAPs have updated maps? Do the county coordinators have working copies of the maps in case they're needed at the Emergency Operations Center?
  • Who is the person responsible at the individual PSAPs for making the critical decisions regarding evacuation? Who has that authority up front?
  • What is the plan to bring in additional staffing resources should they be needed?
  • What website addresses are needed (e.g., opening tickets)? What is the user name and password for each?

Other questions were uncovered as a result of Harvey, and Anita has added a new section to address the frequency of the manual's review. "We will review every December and go through a mock emergency to make sure we aren't missing something and that we are all on the same page."

Preparedness at the County Level

For the counties, they were prepared in case Harvey struck. Vehicles were fueled; generators were ready in case power was lost; staffing was assured in the event Harvey changed direction and turned inland and more Dispatchers were needed; all emergency contacts were up-to-date; and sleeping quarters at the EOCs were ready and stocked with snacks.

But what the counties ended up preparing for was bigger than they had anticipated. They became natural evacuation points for hurricane victims, not only because of their proximity to the Houston area, but also because many have family in the Houston area. Giving people a place to go, when people have, in some instances, lost everything - can mean everything.

Over the coming days, these communities would witness a coming together of their fellow citizens to help others in a way they never had. They would see unlikely sources unite to serve and protect. That was their experience of Hurricane Harvey,

Communities United

April Ehler, the Communications Supervisor for the Leon County Sheriff's Office, spoke of the great outpouring from her community. "Our churches were ready for evacuees if necessary; the hospital was geared up; some of our motel and hotels were offering complimentary rooms and food. Everyone came together and was ready to help as much as possible. It was monumental."

For Kristy Taylor, the Operations Manager for Washington County 911 in Brenham, the outpouring of support was one she had not encountered before.

"There was a constant influx of people, and we had all worked as a team to make sure there was enough food and supplies for folks when they came through. It was great to know we could help and that we were so prepared. There was a huge feeling of family and togetherness in the county we hadn't experienced before."

Nicole Colley, the Communications Supervisor for Burleson County, had a similar experience. "The whole County really stepped up to help those who were impacted. Our churches welcomed the people who came here from the storm. And we had quite a few people throughout the county who were asking for donations for supplies that they delivered to the Houston area.

For Chief Deputy Jerry Stover and 9-1-1 Supervisor Marcia Wachel at the Robertson County Sheriff's Office, this time meant keeping their arms wide open to anyone in need.

"Our community took it upon itself to put truckloads of water, blankets, food - the necessities - together and get them to Houston," said Jerry. "We had air boats and flat-bottom boats going down there to rescue people. The church I go to sent two 18-wheelers loaded with groceries and distributed them to churches in Houston."

Marcia added, "One of the mining companies in Robertson County sent their employees on their day off with airboats to help rescue people. Everyone was talking about helping and what they were going to do."

"Even though we're only about two hours from the coast," said Jerry, "lots of people from our area have kinfolks down there, like their kids. But we weren't helping just because they are family. Our citizens went there to rescue, and it didn't matter who they rescued."

For Jerry, the events of Hurricane Harvey, though tragic, reminded him of the good in people, in his community and the desire for all to lend a helping hand. "It makes you feel proud to know you can help someone else. Do you know that one weekend volunteers fed over 2,000 people on a Saturday - cooking and handing out hamburgers? I feel like if this community had been in that kind of bind, others would have come and helped us."

See how other Texas PSAPs helped one another during Hurricane Harvey:

Part 1 - Featuring the Victoria 9-1-1 Team
Part 2 - Featuring the Dickinson Police Department
Part 3 - Featuring the Galveston County Sheriff's Office

For more information, contact us. We always love hearing from you.