The Hays County Sheriff’s Office received thousands of 911 calls that night, some of which went unanswered because of a lack of resources.
“We became inundated with 911 calls,” said Erica Carpenter, emergency communications director for the sheriff’s office. “We became overwhelmed with rescuing people from their homes, which was a whole new level of emergency to us.”
The HCSO had six 911 workstations to answer all the 911 calls. Flooding in San Marcos caused a public safety radio system outage, and HCSO’s 911 dispatch—currently located on Uhland Road in San Marcos—had to evacuate to the San Marcos Police Department, which did not have enough 911 workstations to handle the amount of calls coming in.
In addition, San Marcos and county emergency officials lost the use of the computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system, so all calls and dispatch instructions had to be logged on paper.
Carpenter said San Marcos and Hays County 911 operators began taking calls for each other’s jurisdictions.
“No matter if you were [a] Hays County or San Marcos [dispatcher], when you answered the phone, you didn’t know if it was coming from Wimberley or San Marcos, so we all became one center,” she said.
These events were an important lesson for emergency officials in the region and brought to light certain inefficiencies—such as lack of space and shared technology as well as operational procedures—in emergency communications during critical events.
In October, after 10 years of planning, Hays County and the cities of Buda and Kyle signed an interlocal agreement that allows Kyle police dispatchers to use the same CAD system as the county, Buda, San Marcos and Texas State University as well as relocate to the new Combined Emergency Communications Center approved by voters in November 2016.
“This is a very important day for Hays County citizens,” said Will Conley, the former Hays County Precinct 3 commissioner, on Oct. 10 when the commissioners signed the interlocal agreement. “We believe beyond a doubt that the public safety of our citizens along with the safety of first responders will be drastically improved throughout our entire county with these agreements.”
For Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett, having his dispatchers in San Marcos means more interaction with the other law-enforcement agencies on large-scale events.
“[Emergencies] that might already involve or need multiple agencies to respond will be dispatched much smoother,” he said.
“That’s why it’s so important for Kyle to come on board with the same CAD system,” Carpenter said. “Because a 911 operator is going to take that call and send it either over to Hays County or over to Kyle or over to fire and EMS or all of us at one time. We can choose what we see, and that’s why they have to be on the same system.”
Co-locating means Kyle dispatchers will have to commute to San Marcos once the center is complete.
“Our dispatchers love working in the city of Kyle and for the city of Kyle,” Barnett said. “With that said, we have a group of very professional and very proficient dispatchers, and I believe they will enjoy a brand-new facility and I believe that once we’re there they’ll see the benefits of being in a co-located center.”
Although San Marcos and Texas State University will not relocate into the CECC, their 911 telecommunicators use the same CAD, so all dispatchers, call-takers and emergency responders from Hays County, Kyle, Buda and San Marcos will be able to communicate with one another.
San Marcos has 31.3 percent of the total calls, meaning it would have to contribute $452,798 of the $1.4 million cost to operate and staff the new center.
“While we felt there would be a benefit to a co-located [dispatch] facility especially during an emergency event, we felt it would be difficult to recommend additional funding in an amount approximating the $452,798 when weighing that against the other organizational needs of the city of San Marcos,” San Marcos Assistant City Manager Steve Parker said in an email. Texas State University spokesperson Matt Flores also cited cost as the reason for opting out of joining the CECC.
Fixing what does not work
At least two deficiencies were identified in the current 911 dispatch model with Kyle and Hays County.
Right now the city of Kyle dispatches police but not fire or EMS. That is done by the county, so when a caller within Kyle city limits dials 911 and requests fire services or EMS, Kyle call-takers must transfer the call to Hays County dispatchers, who will send fire or EMS units to that 911 caller.
Although Carpenter does not know exactly how much time would be saved by co-locating, she said there “clearly could be a delay in sending fire and EMS through the transfer of that call [with the current system].”
To mitigate this delay, Kyle 911 call-takers will be moving into the new CECC and working side-by-side with Hays County dispatchers.
Lon Shell, who serves as Hays County Precinct 3 commissioner and worked extensively on this project, said when the dispatch centers are combined, anyone within the CECC can answer the call no matter where it comes from within Hays County with the exception of San Marcos.
The second deficiency identified was a lack of dedicated call-taking.
Currently, Hays County and Kyle’s call-takers are answering 911 calls and nonemergency calls as well as paging fire, police and EMS.
Under the new model—called horizontal dispatching—dedicated 911 telecommunicators will either serve as dispatchers or call-takers.
“It allows you to have dedicated duties and therefore you can pay more attention to that one function [call-takers] are performing,” Carpenter said.
When Kyle and Hays County 911 operators are co-located, two dispatch centers will essentially become one, Carpenter said, and the municipalities are still determining who will do what job function and how many new dedicated 911 call-takers and dispatchers are needed based on the number of calls each entity receives and the time of day they are received.
Barnett said he wants to consider staffing dispatchers and call-takers on a rotational basis so employees get a chance to perform both duties.
“They enjoy being able to provide a service to those people in need, and they enjoy providing a service to the officers in the field and being good dispatchers,” he said. “If we take a lot of that away, we’re taking a lot of their identity and what they signed up to do away from them.”
What is next
Once complete, the new public safety building will consist of the CECC, the Emergency Operations Center and the Hays County Sheriff’s Office.
A CECC executive board made up of two Hays County commissioners, the city managers from Buda and Kyle, one city council member from Buda and Kyle and one representative from the county Emergency Services Districts is currently being selected.
Broad design of the building has been complete. On Oct. 24, Turner Construction Co. told Hays County commissioners construction costs were currently projected to come in at $7.15 million over budget.
Mike Kaiman, vice president and general manager for Turner, proposed cutting some of the scope of the project and deferring parts of it by several months in order to save money. Suggested cuts included reducing the number of 911 telecommunicator seats from 25 to 20.
“Because I saw the process of determining how many dispatchers you would need, by the time the center is developed and opened and in the very near future, I would suggest that we monitor call volume and staffing needs very closely as we proceed,” Barnett said.