Thursday, July 19, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Bay public safety agencies will turn to social media in major storms

Stranded with her children as flood waters rose around her Houston home early Sunday, Maritza Gonzalez Willis sent out a desperate plea on Twitter.

"I have 2 children with me," she wrote in the 2 a.m. tweet, including her address. Water, she said, "is swallowing us up. Please send help. 911 is not responding!!!!!!"

The tweet went viral and fire rescue crews arrived less than two hours later, according to another tweet Willis sent reporting she and the kids were safe.

As the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in a dozen years, Hurricane Harvey is showing how social media is revolutionizing the search-and-rescue process. With call volumes overwhelming 911 systems and first responders struggling to move in treacherous conditions, people turned to platforms like Twitter and Facebook with desperate pleas for help.

A thousand miles to the east, public safety officials in the Tampa Bay area say they will monitor social media around the clock in a major disaster but they don't see it as a substitute for 911.

"The best way to guarantee help is through the 911 system but in an event like that, we would have a designated social media person to make sure we have that spectrum of communication covered," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Cpl. Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough.

Public safety officials in Texas also urged residents in danger to use 911 but the system quickly became overwhelmed.

From 10 p.m. Saturday through 1 p.m. Sunday, Houston 911 received more 56,000 calls, about seven times the volume of an average day, according to local authorities. People were advised to call 911 only if their home was in "imminent danger."

As the rain continued to fall and water levels continued to rise late Sunday and early Monday, people expressed frustration, complaining on social media about busy phone lines and unanswered calls. They used Twitter hash tags like #harveysos and tagged police and fire rescue agencies in tweets and Facebook posts to attract attention. Some tweets went viral.

It's not to hard to imagine a similarly catastrophic storm overwhelming 911 lines and damaging cell phone infrastructure in the Tampa Bay area, said Chuck Freeman, director of regional 911 for Pinellas County.

"As far as 911 goes, we're as prepared as we can possibly be, but every storm, every situation is different," Freeman said. "There are limitations in technology and manpower."

Pinellas County 911 operators handle about 1,500 calls a day from the dispatch center at the Public Safety Complex in Largo, transferring calls to law enforcement or fire rescue agencies.

In a major event like Harvey, as many as 38 dispatchers could be working at one time, but with a seven-fold increase in call volumes, callers would likely hear ringing until a dispatcher is able to answer, Freeman said.

"If it takes two or three minutes, you just need to hang on," Freeman said.

In Hillsborough, each of nine public safety agencies has its own 911 centers and they answer a total of about 2,000 calls a day, said Ira Pyles, the county's 911 manager. The county is switching to an Internet protocol system that will slightly increase capacity. During a crisis like Harvey, dispatchers from out of the area might help staff as many as 88 lines. Still, there would probably be busy signals because of call volumes or cell tower failures, Pyles said.

Officials urge callers to keep trying until they get through. Meanwhile, though, they can turn to social media as a potential lifeline. Public safety agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas say they will have staffers in emergency operations centers to monitor social media accounts.

"We'd be looking for any types of requests for assistance, specifically during cell phone outages or 911 issues, and would direct those requests to the emergency operations command post to identify and deploy the appropriate resources," said Sgt. Wayne Gross, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Yolanda Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Police Department, is among a team of four people assigned to watch the city's social media accounts for calls for help.

"We will have radio channels open so we can contact dispatch or an office immediately," Fernandez said.

Along with Facebook and Twitter accounts for police and fire departments, the city of Tampa has accounts for its Alert Tampa system that people are encouraged to use in an emergency if there are problems reaching 911, said Janelle McGregor, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Police Department.

"We can acknowledge the request and ask for more information, which could include a phone number to call the person directly," McGregor said.

With their switch from analog to Internet-based systems, Pinellas and Hillsborough will have capability to receive 911 text messages by next year and, later, photos and video. Live video calls are probably a couple of years away.

Officials stressed that nothing is better than real-time dialogue with a 911 operator who can ask about conditions in real time.

"There's all kinds of questions the emergency communications people are to trained to ask that would be crucial for a rescue effort," Fernandez said, "so that's still the best way."

This report includes information from the Associated Press. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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