911 call centre under siege
Operators race to keep up with tens of thousands of calls for help
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.
Erika Wells, a 911 operator, answers a call for help Tuesday in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.