Hurricane Harvey and Emergency Response: 911 Technology Reaction

Published: September 05, 2017

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Hurricane Harvey highlights the delicate nature of many 911 systems across the U.S.

With the tremendous amount of devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey as it slammed into Texas and the fourth most populous city in the U.S. it was a foregone conclusion that the local emergency dispatchers would be inundated with 911 calls from people throughout the Houston area. With thousands of people calling 911 for different reasons, reporting flooding, power outages and requesting rescue, the PSAPs in the affected areas were backed up trying to assist people. Harris County, in charge of 911 systems for Houston and the entire county, received 80,000 calls in one day, the area typically only gets 8,000 calls in a day. This back up caused many residents to fear for their lives as it seemed help would never come. Many people turned to social media to appeal to their local first responders and their neighbors for assistance as flood waters rose. This created a new type of chaos for the PSAPs in Harris County who received many duplicate and outdated reports of emergencies. The use of social media during Harvey exposes the fragile nature of the current 911 system and the need to ensure that upgrades including Next Generation 911 technology are implemented across the county.

Currently many PSAPs lack Next Generation 911 technology that would allow operators to accept new types of data in a more efficient manner. Next Generation 911 technology would not only allow operators to receive text and video but also would help with determining more accurate call locations to better assist first responders. This would allow PSAPs to improve resource allocation and response time. One of the ways new technology could have helped was that Harris County could have shared 911 calls across multiple jurisdictions, alleviating some of the confusion brought on by the use of social media and reducing the backlog of calls. Hurricane Harvey’s effect on the 911 systems in and around Houston have shown how important implementing Next Generation 911 technology is for PSAPs to handle crises.  As the National Public Safety Broadband Network (FirstNet) is quickly becoming a reality it will be necessary for 911 to keep pace. It is estimated that it will cost between $10 billion and $12 billion to update all 911 systems in the county. A federal grant program to assist states with procuring new 911 technology is under development but the majority of the funds will come from state and local governments. The procurement of Next Generation 911 technology will continue across the nation as local governments attempt to do more with often stagnant budgets.

Source: CNN Money