News : 911 Call Center Lauded for Efforts During Harvey
Harris County, TX, USA, Dec, 2017 -- In northwest Harris County, Cypress Creek EMS operators pick up the line, gather information on the situation, dispatch ambulances and provide instructions.
"The first thing they want is the address," said Lori Broadrick, a senior supervisor.
Without a location, the call is pointless if it happens to disconnect and no ambulance or fire truck can be sent out to assist the person needing help, she said.
Cypress Creek EMS operators are trained for up to a year to answer calls and dispatch medics or firefighters to people needing help.
On an average day, operators at the Cypress Creek EMS center answer approximately 250 calls in 24 hours to 15 agencies located in most of the unincorporated areas of Harris County and parts of Brazoria County, Broadrick said.
When Hurricane Harvey hit the greater Houston area in late August, operators handled nearly 800 calls during the first three hours, Broadrick wrote in a blog post. In all, during five days of rain and flooding, the center wound up handling more than 12,000 calls.
During this time, social media exacerbated the amount of calls operators received as residents would report on posts they had seen online, said Niky Smith, communications manager.
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"People would see it on Twitter and 14 people would call from one tweet, even though they didn't know the person," she said.
The high volume of calls overwhelmed the operators and they were unable to answer all of them.
"We turned off the ringer on our phones because as soon as you hung up, you automatically answered the next call," she said.
Many of the people who called during Harvey either needed to be rescued or required medical assistance.
For their efforts during Harvey, Cypress Creek EMS earned the Telecommunicator of the Year Award by the Texas Department of State Health Services in November.
Since he started in 2009, shift supervisor and operator Ryan McKnight has heard about all kinds of emergencies people experience, such as car accidents and pregnant women in labor.
"It's still an adrenaline rush," he said. "When you answer the phone, you never know what kind of call you're going to get. It's always something different."
When answering a call, McKnight said that many people simply want an ambulance or fire truck to arrive and don't understand that operators can help them during emergencies.
Since he began answering 911 calls, McKnight has coached people on the phone through childbirth, performing CPR, the Heimleich maneuver, diagnosing a stroke, control blood loss due to an injury and how to escape a sinking car or house on fire before a first responder reaches them.
Natural disasters can trigger an avalanche of calls for help and the Tax Day floods of 2016 caused many to dial in, but that the amount didn't reach the heavy call volume during Harvey.
"It was just so widespread," he said.
Like the other operators, McKnight stayed on the Cypress Creek EMS campus where mattresses had been set up in classrooms and offices for them along with other first responders and citizen boaters.
When he was off the clock, McKnight said he couldn't really sleep and kept receiving updates from his family, who were worried about the rising water levels in their neighborhoods.
Eventually, his parents were evacuated by firefighters and he later learned his own garage had taken on two feet of water.
"It was very nerve-wracking," he said.
Once the flooding had gone down and operators were finally allowed to leave to see their families and survey the damage to their own homes, some of them broke down crying, Smith said.
Despite nearly a week of nonstop calls, coworkers also grew closer after facing an overwhelming number of calls together.
"I think it was a huge relief," she said.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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