No 911 during storms? You weren't alone
They already had 8 feet of water in the basement of their Arlington Heights home in the early morning July 23, when at the height of the storm Mike and Janet Donner smelled smoke.
They called 911 five or six times, but their calls went unanswered, Janet said.
The Donners' calls were among more than 1,000 considered "abandoned" between 2 and 4 a.m. that Saturday at the Northwest Central Dispatch System, according to Executive Director Cindy Barbera-Brelle.
Dispatchers answered 1,466 calls during that same two-hour period, she said.
A record amount of rain -- almost seven inches in slightly more than three hours -- fell at O'Hare Airport starting at 1 a.m. The 11 Northwest suburbs that use Northwest Central Dispatch were in the bull's-eye of the storm.
During the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift that night the dispatch center in Arlington Heights handled 2,592 phone calls. To compare, the same shift a week before recorded 258 calls, said Barbera-Brelle.
The shift normally has 13 dispatchers. Between 3-5:15 a.m. July 23 that number grew to 18 or 20. Staffers stayed late, came in early or arrived in response to a page requesting help, she said.
There are 19 official stations in the center, but supervisors and administrators can also answer calls from their offices.
If dispatchers at Northwest Central cannot get to a call, after a few rings it is routed to the Cook County dispatch center in Des Plaines. If not answered there, it routes back to Northwest Dispatch.
"No system could handle that volume of activity," said Barbera-Brelle. "We do the best we can. Getting that number of calls is very rare -- maybe it would happen a couple times a year. It doesn't happen on a Saturday night in the summer, even the Fourth of July or the February blizzard.
"You can't really staff for the rare emergency 24 hours a day 365 days a year. You would have people sitting around."
The Donners averted a potential house fire when Janet's brother, an electrician, came over and turned off the house's power. They later learned a sofa and other furniture were smoldering because they had floated upward and were in contact with the basement ceiling lights.
Arlington Heights Village President Arlene Mulder said she expects the dispatch system's board and leadership will study the events of July 23 and come up with improvements.
Those might include a way to triage calls, increase the number of lines, an on-call system so reinforcements can arrive within 30 minutes, or another overflow system besides the one in effect.
She called the dispatch center a "lifeline."
"If somebody needs help it's extremely important that the call gets answered," said Mulder. "This would be the time to review what worked, what didn't work and what changes can be made.
"There's nobody at fault here," Mulder said. "It was an extraordinary event that never happened before."
Carmen Eddy, an operations manager in the dispatch center, was on vacation July 23. But she heard what was happening and drove in at 3:30 a.m.
"When I walked in all the phones were ringing, there was a box alarm (a call for help from other departments) because Mount Prospect had an apartment fire, and the basement in central dispatch started to flood," Eddy said.
"It was one of the busiest times I have ever seen in my many years. I don't know what to do first -- dispatch calls, mop the basement or answer the phone."
People worked 12-15 hours without lunch breaks and didn't complain, said Eddy.
There are 39 trunk lines both wired and wireless for the system, with those numbers computed by AT&T, which runs them through two of the company's centers.
Northwest Central Dispatch also has a smaller backup center available in Schaumburg. The Arlington Heights center has battery and generator backup power.
Many of the calls on July 23 were about power outages and flooded basements, and dispatchers could only give callers the ComEd phone number or tell them they had to call private contractors about their basements.
Barbera-Brelle said residents with true emergencies should continue trying to get through to 911. Someone trying to report a heart attack or a fire, for instance, should call their police department's nonemergency number if 911 is unreachable.
She also suggested that suburban governments educate residents about which calls 911 can respond to, she said.
"Triaging is easier said than done," she said. "You think (you have) an emergency, and it is. It's just not (always) an emergency fire and police departments respond to."
Not all abandoned calls are people hanging up in frustration after being unable to get through. Some are people who change their minds. But dispatchers can't tell the difference, and ordinarily the center calls back abandoned calls, said Barbera-Brelle.
Eddy said even that night the staff made many callbacks.
"We knew it was going to storm," said Eddy, "but they don't tell you everyone's basements are going to flood, and streets will flood, and there would be 7 inches so quickly."
System improvements have been made since the huge rain of August 2008, said Barbera-Brelle. Three supervisors and five administrators can now answer 911 calls from their offices. There are six stations available at the Schaumburg backup center, she added.
"Even if we had done all that, we couldn't have answered all the calls," she said.