Hays County voters passed a $106.4 million bond package in November of 2016, in part to pay for the new Public Safety Building (pictured above) at 810 South Stagecoach Trail which was completed and operational Jan. 21 of this year. Photo courtesy of Hays County Sheriff's Office
Fire departments adapt after new dispatch center floods
Hays County’s new Public Safety Building, which houses the Emergency Operations Center, was evacuated due to an electrical fire, flooding and generator failure during last week’s freeze, leaving local fire departments to handle dispatching calls the old fashioned way.
Fire Departments adapted quickly to taking calls and writing reports in a more, “simplistic way,” Captain Christopher Robbins at Wimberley Fire and Rescue said — on paper.
Robbins worked a 216-hour shift during the winter storm, which also happened to be his first shift as captain of the operations division. Robbins, alongside both staff and volunteer firefighters, alternated between operations and responding to a slew of calls, including downed power lines, sprinkler systems free flowing into commercial buildings, water main leaks, car accidents and residents who slipped on ice. They supported Wimberley EMS with small engine vehicles with chains to reach areas where ambulances couldn’t, and transported residents to medical facilities.
He estimated their call volume was up 300%, he estimated, because for two days, they had to do reporting by hand.
Kyle Fire Department also took calls on paper for two days, dealing with roughly four times their normal call volume before Active911 was back up and running.
They are still playing catch-up with transferring the call data to their records management system after more than a week of demanding emergency response calls.
“Everything worked really well in the beginning with our dispatch center located in San Marcos,” Robbins said. “It kind of crippled our infrastructure and our dispatch center.”
A combination of overwhelming calls and issues caused the dispatch center to evacuate and the loss of state of the art equipment forced everyone to go back to a more simple way of dispatching, Robbins said.
Kyle Fire Chief Kyle Taylor said the Emergency Operations Center has already been active to support COVID-19 vaccine clinics, but confirmed it had to be evacuated on Tuesday, Feb. 16 due to a broken water pipe covering the 911 Dispatch Center in a few inches of water.
“Between having to evacuate the dispatch center, I think it went as well as it could,” Taylor said. “We handled all the calls, and didn’t let anything slip through the cracks.”
Active911, the dispatch center’s emergency response software, normally alerts the fire departments of a call via a phone notification. Tyler said due to the flooding, all notifications went down for two days.
Kyle Fire Department handled the county dispatch calls directly, while Wimberley Fire and Rescue still received their calls via radio, the difference was the data intake. Robbins described a pivot to simple records management, keeping the necessary information in house and updating dispatch later with the status.
Active911 gives dispatch the ability to update call status and provides GPS routing directly to first responders’ cell phones through a mobile app. With cell towers going down, however, there were ups and downs throughout the event, Robbins said.
“Naturally in the fire service, we overcome the adversities that are set before us,” Robbins said. The evacuation of the dispatch center did not affect their ability to respond, stating that there was only one point when there was a call or two on standby, the rest of the calls received immediate response.
“Every agency in the county was able to meet the standard, in my opinion for what we have,” Robbins said. “All operations were extremely successful for what we were given.”
Hays County voters passed a $106.4 million bond package in November of 2016, in part to pay for the new Public Safety Building at 810 South Stagecoach Trail which was completed and operational Jan. 21 of this year.
The bond included an expansion and renovation of the Hays County Jail, the construction of an Emergency Operations Center and a state of art combined 911 Center that houses operators from the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, Kyle Police Department, and Texas State University working together to streamline dispatching due to an interlocal agreement.
Judge Ruben Becerra issued a local disaster declaration on Feb. 14, and moved forward with opening a Virtual Emergency Operations Center after multiple building failures and subsequent evacuation of the Public Safety Building including generator failure, an electrical fire and flooding.
“With the tremendous help of the Kyle Fire Department, first responders, county employees and volunteers, we took creative measures to manage multiple emergencies at once with a virtual Emergency Operations Center,” Becerra said in a statement. “Emergency response was never slowed as our Emergency Service Districts plan for these types of scenarios. As unusual, our first responders rise to the occasion and get the job done.
“I am extremely disappointed with our brand-new public safety building and will be asking for a report outlining why we had multiple failures. I will also be conducting an after action meeting countywide with all mayors, city managers, school board presidents and superintendents.”
Taylor said KFD was in touch with the virtual Emergency Operations Center all week and even received additional fuel from them when it was needed.
“I think there were a lot of issues going on above anybody’s control. (Communications) worked out very well, for as much as it worked,” Director of Wimberley EMS Kevin Strange said.
“How amazing it was for our volunteers to step up, we are a combination department, and assist with staffing and emergency response in a time of need,” Robbins said. Those that could show up of their 15 volunteers, did. “They stepped up beyond what was expected of that.”