911 call cen­tre un­der siege

Op­er­a­tors race to keep up with tens of thou­sands of calls for help

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES/NEWS - HAR­VEY

Some of the callers are pan­ick­ing; oth­ers ex­ude a strange seren­ity. One mo­ment, Har­vey’s flood­wa­ters are pour­ing into a home, the next a mo­torist is trapped on an in­un­dated in­ter­state. A woman goes into labour in a washed-out neigh­bour­hood, and a split-sec­ond later, a fam­ily seeks res­cue from their at­tic. The pleas for help stream in hour af­ter hour, call af­ter call af­ter call.

In the thick of a par­a­lyz­ing storm and its af­ter­math, the weight of this swamped city’s prob­lems are land­ing at the cav­ernous 911 call cen­tre, where op­er­a­tors are rac­ing to keep up as peo­ple dial in by the tens of thou­sands.

“This is like noth­ing we’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore,” op­er­a­tor Erika Wells says, in a short re­prieve be­tween calls.

At its worst, from Sun­day into Mon­day, some 75,000 calls poured in, more than eight times the nor­mal 24-hour load, and those di­al­ing some­times en­dured long waits to reach an op­er­a­tor. Even as time passed and the vol­ume dropped, more than 21,000 peo­ple called be­tween Mon­day af­ter­noon and Tuesday af­ter­noon, when an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter was given ex­clu­sive ac­cess to ob­serve work at the cen­tre. In a sin­gle hour, dozens of calls can ar­rive at a sin­gle op­er­a­tor’s head­set.

Wells re­ported for work on Satur­day at 2 p.m. and worked a 20-hour stretch through Har­vey’s im­me­di­ate af­ter­math be­fore she fi­nally stepped away at 10 a.m. Sun­day. Like her col­leagues, she has camped out at the cen­tre since. She works fren­zied 12-hour shifts and sleeps each night on a cot in a dark­ened hall­way with a clus­ter of fe­male col­leagues. It feels like some sort of strange sum­mer camp.

She is 26, a life­long Hous­to­nian, and first set foot in the call cen­tre nine years ago, when she was a high schooler tak­ing part in a co-op pro­gram. She’s worked here ever since, through floods and Su­per Bowls and New Year’s Eves, but never some­thing quite like this.

Wells sits be­fore four screens in a mas­sive, dimly lit room thick with the hum of the dozens of oth­ers tend­ing to Houston’s mis­ery. Giant dis­plays hang from the back wall, pro­ject­ing images from the world out­side — streets turned to rivers, res­cues from rooftops, and of­fi­cials chat­ter­ing about a storm that won’t seem to go away. All the while, the calls stream in to her.

“Houston 911: Do you need med­i­cal, po­lice or fire?” she asks each one.

Af­ter so many hours and so many calls, it all has be­come a blur. Still, some stick out: The man who calmly re­ported wa­ter had reached his knees and drowned his dog; the house packed with 10 peo­ple in des­per­ate need of an es­cape; the woman whose baby chose the worst time to en­ter the world.

“I lit­er­ally watched it go from a reg­u­lar Satur­day, to this wa­ter is ev­ery­where, to now all hell’s break­ing loose,” she says.

She ca­joled callers to breathe and stay calm as she tried to col­lect the in­for­ma­tion she needed to help them. Some sur­prised her with their seem­ing non­cha­lance in the face of tragedy, like the man who was trapped in his home, and the woman whose hus­band had died. Each time she hung up or trans­ferred the caller to a po­lice or fire dis­patcher, an­other came through, al­most im­me­di­ately.

AP PHOTO

Erika Wells, a 911 op­er­a­tor, an­swers a call for help Tuesday in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Houston.

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