Houston’s 911 system has been overwhelmed.  Officials says it’s received and processed 75,00 calls since Hurricane Harvey moved inland.  The director there says some people were hanging up because they didn’t think their calls would be answered.

Even though we don’t have hurricanes in this area, our 911 system could get overwhelmed by other natural disasters as we saw a few years ago. 

In 2013, a crippling April ice storm in Sioux Falls nearly caused the 911 system to freeze up.  

“That was the closest that we got to being overwhelmed,” 911 Director Paul Niedringhaus said. 

Niedringhaus says just like a hurricane, the Sioux Falls ice storm lasted a few days.  

They were taking more than 3,000 calls a day, responding to crashes, down tree limbs and power lines. 115,000 people were without power over the three days. 

The phone calls just kept coming.

“That phone is going to ring until you pick it up,” Niedringhaus said. 

The calls at the 911 center are prioritized, responding to the most serious ones first.  During a natural disaster like that one, it took extra staff.

“It was three days of pure chaos,” former 911 dispatcher Justin Faber said. 

Faber, who works in quality assurance for the center now, was one of the dispatchers back then.  For three days, he worked 12-hour shifts answering emergency calls.  

“For the entire 12-hour shift, I never took the phone off my head; it was non-stop,” Faber said. 

Niedringhaus says the key to responding to a disaster is having a plan in place and then executing that plan. 

“We have backup power and have a backup center, so we do have contingencies in place, so we’ll have continual operations to make sure the citizens can call in,” Niedringhaus said. 

During the ice storm, Niedringhaus says the 911 center was fully staffed with 11 dispatchers taking calls, plus the 911 backup center at an undisclosed fire station was fully staffed, too.