By Chris Lane
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For three hours during the peak of Tropical Storm Allison, Houston Police Department dispatchers relied solely on walkie-talkies to send officers on emergency calls.
"It's difficult to communicate via walkie-talkie to all the officers in the field," says Chief C.O. Bradford. "But nonetheless, that's part of our backup plan." He explains that the flood knocked out electricity to the primary Computer Aided Dispatch System.
"So the call-for-service management system failed. The telephone system failed. And the radio system failed. But our walkie-talkie system was up and worked fine."
Still, admits Bradford, the high volume of calls for service, combined with the failure of radio and computer dispatch systems, left police able to respond to only emergency situations during the early-morning flooding of June 9. However, Bradford insists the communication problem did not jeopardize lives.
"We had so many emergency calls, the other kinds of calls were backlogged," says the chief. "We simply could not get to the regular course of business. We had regular family disturbance calls, if you can believe it. We had those steadily coming in. Well, we couldn't get out to those. We were dealing with emergency calls."
Bradford is also adamant that city officials did not initially play down the failures of the police department's communication system to try to reduce the threat of looting. He did indicate that the department stressed the positive to try to avoid any panic by the public.
"We got to the point that we had a regular complement of officers out there by Saturday night [June 9], and we did have communication," says Bradford. "We didn't downplay [the dispatch problems], but at the same time, we wanted the citizens to know -- not so much so that the thugs would hear it -- so that the citizens would hear it: fear reduction. The police are here. They are available, and they can communicate."
The chief says only four incidents of looting were reported during the worst of the disaster -- Bradford credits that to the moral fiber of Houstonians, not to mention the fact that, despite the high water, the department was able to stay almost fully staffed for the duration of the emergency.
The HPD communications problems were the result of flooding at the department's old headquarters at 61 Riesner. Although most HPD divisions have relocated to the department's newer building at 1200 Travis, dispatch officers continue to operate out of the old facility.
Bradford says the flood knocked out phone service to 61 Riesner, creating a "disastrous" situation. "We were not able to receive any emergency calls for service because the flood pumps could not pump the water out fast enough, so our generator system flooded out." Then the backup system also failed.
Regular communication with field officers was not restored until dispatch was temporarily reconfigured to 1200 Travis. Bradford estimates it will be mid-August before the Riesner building restores full dispatch capacity. By next spring Bradford hopes police, fire and the 911 dispatch system will be set up in a new facility on North Shepherd. It is designed specifically for dispatch -- a building that, the chief notes, came through the flood in good shape.
In addition to officers on the ground, Bradford especially praised the department's helicopter division. He says the air surveillance was crucial to a comprehensive overview of the city's predicament because high water cut off patrol divisions, leaving them able to cover only areas that had become islands. The chief was also pleased with the coordination between the various governmental entities dealing with the crisis -- one that the chief described as the largest disaster to hit Houston since he moved here in 1979.
"I saw city departments -- public works, solid waste, health department, fire department, police and other county agencies come together like I've never seen them come together before," says Bradford. "I saw what we have practiced work. You've got the script for what's supposed to happen. But it all fell into place."
Costs to the department include $600,000 in overtime alone, along with $3 million in lost and damaged equipment, from cars to computers.
Bradford says the preparation for possible Y2K problems a couple of years ago enhanced the ability of both government and business to deal with Allison. However, he believes emergency officials need to come up with a better plan for what to do with storm victims during those hours early on in a crisis before temporary shelters have opened.
He's among the chorus calling for a hard look at the heretofore conventional wisdom of locating backup generators and other emergency equipment in flood-prone basements. Additionally, Bradford says the flood points to the need for some type of area censor system to enable emergency officials to know exactly how high the water is in any part of Houston at any given moment. And, not surprisingly, the chief sides with those folks who believe that, even with record rainfall of Tropical Storm Allison, the area should realize it has a serious drainage problem.
"I hope," says Bradford, "that somebody who has an engineering degree, engineering background, will get with the county commissioners and the City Council members and say, 'You know what? Something has to be done.' "