Dispatchers everywhere know that emergency situations can change rapidly.
For instance, when the fire crews in Shawnee County, Kansas were on the scene of a grass fire and a tornado touched down, dispatchers alerted the fire crews to take cover.
"At that time, two things were happening with the situation and back at the dispatch center," Melanie Mills-Bergers, interim director for Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center (SCECC) said. "On one hand we had the fire and the tornado happening. We also had to switch our CAD system from our normal mode of operation into storm mode, which helps us to better facilitate calls for service."
Taking the CAD system into storm mode helps reduce the response of fire personnel due the plethora of calls during a severe storm. It assists with ensuring enough resources are spread throughout the covered area in order to handle the extreme number of calls for service.
Storm mode does not prioritize or relate calls nor assist with duplicate calls.
"When we had fire crews out at the grass fire and that tornado came, we knew they had to get out of there and take shelter," Mills-Bergers said. "We also knew we needed to handle that call for service correctly as it entailed two major events."
To ensure the fire crews were kept safe, they left the scene of the fire and took shelter. By staying in contact with dispatch using their mobile device terminals (MDTs), the fire crew was alerted to when it was safe to return to the area.
"Even with a small tornado, call volumes increase," Mills-Berger said. "Facilitating those calls in storm mode in CAD helps us streamline responses and keep processes flowing. What's important is that we have a system that keeps up with the calls, so that citizens get the help they need when they need it and our first responders have access to as much information as possible through all aspects of a response."
In the weeks leading up to the 2017 hurricane season, Chief Darrell Bush of the Nederland Police Department and Chief Paul Lemoine of the Port Neches Police Department participated in one storm preparation meeting after another, but none of it could have prepared them for what would happen once Hurricane Harvey made landfall in late August.
In just five days, the City of Nederland, Texas broke national records after 64.58 inches of rain drenched the community — 31.38 inches of which came down in a single day. Port Neches, Texas wasn't too far behind, receiving 64.51 inches of rainfall during the same time frame.
The year prior, Texas led the country in flooding-related fatalities. In 2016, flash and river floods claimed 126 lives around the country and 38 in Texas. Nearly half of the victims were killed in a vehicle, likely trying to cross a flooded road.
However, tragedy was avoided in Nederland and Port Neches during Hurricane Harvey.
Wading through shoulder-deep water and working for hours on end, officers made every effort to help those in need.
"I was in the field the whole time. It was all hands-on deck," Lemoine said.
When the rain stopped, the sun finally reappeared, and the flooding started to recede, the two police departments had made a combined total of more than 180 rescues. No lives were lost due to flooding in Nederland or Port Neches and no officer was injured in the field.
Located just around 30 miles off the coast of Texas, between Houston and the Louisiana border, the neighboring communities of Nederland and Port Neches are so close together that it is often difficult to tell where one city ends and the other begins. The proximity between the two communities along with a third nearby city allowed for a unique partnership to form between local law enforcement. In these communities, local agencies rely on each other for basic services, including police dispatch.
Because all three municipalities are all utilizing the same computer aided dispatch (CAD) software, information flows seamlessly between each of the jurisdictions, according to Nederland Police Chief Darrell Bush.
This connection became a critical component of the police departments' response during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In just five days, the Nederland broke national records after 64.58 inches of rain drenched the community — 31.38 inches of which came down in a single day. Port Neches wasn't too far behind, receiving 64.51 inches of rainfall during the same time frame.
Despite the historic rainfall and unprecedented flooding, officers were able to reach the people in need of rescue — regardless of jurisdiction.
"I'll tell you that in a situation like that, you have manuals to go by and you have protocol, but the bottom line is that the actual situation is going to be different, and there is really no way to be proactive except to make sure that the software you're using and any equipment you are going to depend on is good and reliable," Bush said.
Operators in a centralized location were able to coordinate rescue efforts between police departments and dispatch the closest officer to the person in need. While physical barriers blocking roads generally kept officers in their respective jurisdictions, the intercommunity partnership prevented duplicated search and rescue efforts so that nearly 200 lives were saved in a timely manner.
As communication needs continue to change, it's important to have technology that stays ahead of trends and meets future requirements. With many public safety answering points (PSAPs) preparing for or implementing Next Generation 911, understanding what that initiative entails is critical.
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