Dispatchers, first responders use pen, paper, and radios after 'catastrophic' communications failure

Shannon Ryan Image
Thursday, March 14, 2024
'Catastrophic' system failure reduces city's dispatchers to pen, paper
Planned electrical upgrades at the Houston Emergency Center turned "catastrophic" when power and communications were disrupted on Monday night.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Power supporting Houston Emergency Center's communications system was disrupted on Monday night, causing the system to at least partially fail.

Approximately 6,000 calls occur daily to Houston's fire, emergency medical services, and police, with law enforcement routinely routed through the center.

Inside the center, call-takers accept 911 calls on consoles, inputting the information into a computer-aided dispatch, or CAD system. That information is then forwarded to dispatchers for various departments.

During planned electrical upgrades on Monday, Houston Emergency Center Director Robert Mock said parts of the CAD system unexpectedly crashed.

"This was a loss of power," he explained.

With parts of the CAD system down and others malfunctioning, call-takers had to write down information coming in on homicides, heart attacks, and house fires by hand.

Mock explained that departments were impacted differently because the CAD system has different terminals.

The Houston Police Department was reportedly directly impacted for about an hour. In contrast, the Houston Fire Department reported being directly impacted for approximately 4.5 hours.

"It's a big octopus," Mock said of the CAD system and its different terminals.

Issues didn't subside after information was manually relayed to dispatchers. Houston police dispatch consoles were knocked out, too.

On Wednesday, the city said it was still working to determine how many consoles were knocked out. Dispatchers on impacted consoles shifted to radio.

"We've experienced things like this in the past. We have equipment. We have computers. Things fail. Things go down, but these are our contingencies," Mock said.

Initial reports from officials stated the failure lasted just a few minutes. Mock said he believed it lasted an hour but acknowledged the fire department might have been directly impacted 4.5 times longer.

The fire department reported the issues lasted from approximately 11:20 p.m. Monday to 3:50 a.m. Tuesday.

Mock said the dispatch outages lasted from approximately 11:30 p.m. Monday to 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

During that time, he said dispatchers received 260 calls, 82% of which were answered in 15 seconds or less. The target is 90%.

ABC13 is still working to learn how first responders' response times were impacted. The fire department only acknowledged that calls were delayed but said: "They were all responded to."

Houston police were referred to the "catastrophic loss of communication policy." The policy states:

"In the event of a catastrophic radio and computer (MCD) failure, all on-duty patrol personnel, including supervisors, are to report to their assigned Houston Police Station. Once there, a supervisor shall provide information, equipment, and assignments consistent with the particular emergency and the orders of the Chief of Police. Communications, assignments, and specific duties shall be developed by the Chief of Police for each emergency and distributed via the chain of command."

As of Wednesday evening, it remains unclear if officers - and if so, which ones - were ordered to report back to their stations.

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