Port Arthur 911 issues during Harvey leave residents worried, PA mayor wanting more 911 lines

12 News investigates how 911 dispatchers handled the volume of calls during Tropical Storm Harvey

PORT ARTHUR - As Tropical Storm Harvey rained down on Southeast Texas, Port Arthur's 911 system was inundated with more than 23,000 calls over four days.

"I am flooding in my nursing home. I have a small fire in the back of my nursing home. I need help!"
"Is the water coming in your apartment?

"It's just a scary situation."

These were just a few of the cries from people begging to be rescued. 

"In a normal, everyday circumstance, if you dial 911, your call is going to be answered in less than three rings," said Pete Delacruz director of the Southeast Texas 911 Emergency Network. 

But, for Southeast Texas, Harvey was everything but normal. 

For days, 13 dispatchersin Port Arthur relied on six phone lines to play middle man between frantic calls and emergency responders. 

DATA | Raw 911 call data provided by PAPD (493 pages)

With more than 23,000 calls pouring into the center over the span of the storm's peak, the three-ring answer standard doubled, tripled, and in some cases, went on indefinitely according to Deputy Marcus McLellan, of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. 

"The call may ring, ring, ring, but you need to go into survival mode," McLellan said.

Leigh Coney experienced that "survival mode" first hand. 

Coney was ironing clothes when the water started to seep through the crevices of her Port Arthur home. 

As she tried to figure out what to do next, her aunt, like many others, messaged the 12News Facebook page, begging for help. 

"It was coming fast, like really fast. Within another 30 minutes it was ankle deep in the house, Coney said.

By night fall, the water chased Coney and her four boys to the roof to try and flag down some help. For hours, she says she dialed 911. 

"You're taught to call 911 if you need help. Not knowing what's going to happen; not knowing if you're going to make it. Are they going to send somebody? You can't explain that feeling," said Coney.

"I didn't get ahold of anybody," she said.

Coney wasn't the only one who couldn't get through to 911.

The 12News Investigative Team filed a freedom of information request with the Port Arthur Police Department asking for a log of all emergency calls that came in between August 29 and September 1, 2017.

The City of Port Arthur Police Department responded and provided 12News with raw data on all 911 calls made on the dates requested.

DATA | Raw 911 call data provided by PAPD (493 pages)

Out of the 23,126 connected calls taken, nearly 12,000 were either disconnected before reaching a dispatcher or went unanswered.

According to information provided with the raw data the report lists the call date and time, how many seconds it took to answer the call as well as the duration of the call from the "second it starts ringing until the call is completed."

The Port Arthur system has six 911 lines and if all lines are busy the calls will roll to the "next agency."

Calls that roll to another agency were not listed in the raw data provided by the Port Arthur Police Department.

Additionally there is no way to track missed calls according to information received by 12News with the raw data.

In the raw data provided by the police department there are 11,967 out of 23,126 connected calls that show zero "talk seconds" though all show up to three minutes of ring time.

Port Arthur 911 "Zero Talk Seconds"
Number of calls with no talk time recorded

  • Aug 29 -- 1,765
  • Aug 30 -- 9,389
  • Aug 31 -- 0
  • Sep 01 -- 793
    TOTAL -- 11,967

Ring times for all calls with no talk time recorded

  • 1 - 2 min. -- 2,040
  • 2 - 3 min. -- 1,931
  • 3 min. -- 1,271
    TOTAL -- 3,971 calls rang for a minute to three minutes with no talk time recorded.

Neither John Tatroe, Port Arthur Police Department Support Director, or  Southeast Texas 911 Emergency Network director Pete Delacruz could explain why there were so many "zero talk seconds" calls recorded in the raw data received from the police department.

Some residents said they believe operators were even hanging up on callers. 

Delacruz told 12News he did not believe that happened.

"The call takers are so professional. All of the calls in the region are recorded, so there would be documentation for something like that," Delacruz explained.

As the water rose, so did call volumes and wait times according to Delacruz.

"We could see from the numbers for the individual agencies that water rescues from the areas that were impacted by flooding was where the larger call volume took place," said Delacruz.

Taking a look at the region, as a whole, 911 calls increased by 548% according to data released by the Southeast Texas 911 Emergency Network.

Data released by SETX 911 compared the weekdays of August 21 -25 before the storm to the weekdays of August 28 - September 1 during which the storm hit.

The SETX 911 data showed Port Arthur Police 911 dispatchers taking 5,901 calls during the week of the storm vs 577 calls the week before which was an increase of 923%.

The Nederland Police 911 dispatchers handled 3,461 calls the week of the storm and 577 calls the week before which was an increase of 2445%.

Some of Nederland's increase as well as some of the increases for calls handled by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, Beaumont 911 and Beaumont Fire Rescue may be attributed to calls rolling over to the next agency when Port Arthur's six lines were busy.

Port Arthur's 13 dispatchers averaged 1,770 calls per worker over four days as they juggled more than 23,000 calls from August 29 - September 1 according to the raw data from the police department.

Delacruz told 12News he doesn't think Port Arthur needs more 911 dispatchers.

"I think the system is sized appropriately for the need in Southeast Texas. That event was so large in scale, that even if we had an extra 50 911 positions in Southeast Texas, it still would've been inundated by the call volume," he said.

Compared to other cities its size Port Arthur's 911 call center appears to be similarly staffed.

Port Arthur's estimated 2016 population is 55,427 according to U.S. Census data.

Texas City, with an estimated 2016 population of 48,262, has 10 dispatchers while Galveston, with an estimated 2016 population of 50,550, has 17.

The fact that Port Arthur falls right in the middle with 13 dispatchers is little consolation for Coney and her four children. 

"It's a big letdown. I feel like they didn't care at all," Coney says.

Port Arthur's Mayor Derrick Freeman says that after wading through the waters of this catastrophic storm, he knows there's room for improvement. 

"We're definitely going to look into more lines," Freeman told 12News.

Along with adding more lines, Freeman told 12News officials are working on creating an emergency operations center and increasing the number dispatchers and emergency responders.

But one problem the city must overcome first is staffing levels at the police department.

"Before the storm hit, we were short dozens of officers already," said Freeman. 

Freeman and the city are now faced with working to fully staff agencies, and create a reserve for emergencies so that people like Coney never feel forgotten again. 

"If there was a time when the city wasn't able to get to you and you feel like we were doing something to slight you, we apologize," Freeman said.

Leigh Coney says she accepts Freeman's apology but doesn't know if it's enough to bring her back to the only city she's ever known. 

"After that happened, I can't see myself going back. Because, what if something happens again," she asks. 

© 2017 KBMT-TV


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