When It Rains, It Pours!

March 1, 2007
Barry Furey discusses lessons learned when spring storms flood a dispatch center in North Carolina with calls.

The City of Raleigh and Wake County, NC, entered 2006 with significant rainfall deficits. A comparatively dry spring, coupled with shortages in previous years resulted in mandatory water conservation measures. Meteorologists predicted little end in sight, and forecast a long, dry summer. Boy, were they wrong. Beginning on April 22, the region was regularly assaulted by strong thunderstorms, reports of tornadic activity and a rain event associated with Tropical Storm Alberto that by itself dropped more than 7½ inches of rain.

While all of this additional water was a blessing for the reservoir, it was a curse for public safety agencies, resulting in numerous lightning-ignited structure fires and water rescues associated with local flooding. Particularly hard hit was the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center, which provides call handling and dispatching for the majority of the approximately 720,000 residents of the region.

Although the workload and damage experienced pales in comparison to incidents such as Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina, it is representative of the challenges faced by communities during lesser but nonetheless disruptive weather events. On April 22, the communications center saw an increase of 35% in 911 calls. During the peak of the storm, incoming volume was close to 300% of what is normally experienced for similar time frames. Fire dispatches for that same period were even higher; rising to five times the expected norm.

Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications services both the City of Raleigh and Wake County fire departments. The city is a career department operating out of 26 stations, while the county is an amalgamation of more than twenty part paid/volunteer departments. The city and county each have their own run orders, with some crossover in services in borderline areas.

During the late morning and early afternoon, the severe weather that blanketed the region was accompanied by numerous lightning strikes. In addition to the fire alarms and wires down calls normally associated with wind and rain events, there were numerous structure fires. In an effort to better manage resources, the Raleigh Fire Department instituted its storm plan, which, in some cases, replaced full first-alarm assignments with single-engine responses for less severe calls.

Despite this, at the height of the storm, all of Raleigh's resources were committed. Among the incidents in progress at that time were a fire in a large residential structure, a house fire which had communicated to an exposure and a fire in a 24-unit garden apartment complex. While the latter had both detection and suppression equipment, none was installed in the attic where the blaze began. This incident was fought by Raleigh firefighters, in addition to units from Wake and nearby Durham County. When dispatchers requested a recommendation from the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, they received a blank screen in return. Assignments were made on the fly to fill out the response. Adding to the drain on resources was the fact that a Raleigh fire captain suffered a broken ankle while assisting at an EMS call, thereby temporarily removing yet another company from the mix.

As hectic as this day was, it was only the precursor of things to come. On June 14, remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto entered the Triangle Region, as the Raleigh-Durham-High Point area is known locally. Before these uninvited guests departed, they left behind more than 7½ inches of rain and numerous street closures. Again, first responders were kept busy by myriad weather-related calls. The Crabtree Valley Mall was closed and evacuated due to rising water, and several cars had to be towed from the parking lot. Throughout the city, stranded motorists had to be rescued from their vehicles. While there were no serious injuries reported locally, there was one storm-associated death, when a youth drowned in neighboring Johnson County.

Elsewhere in the county, a dam failed and other lakes and streams overflowed their banks. One motel, a daycare center and numerous private residences also had to be abandoned. An emergency shelter was opened to house some of the evacuees. By sheer volume, this event eclipsed the April incident, resulting in a 71% increase in activity. Total fire dispatches rose from 234 to 359. Still, there was more to come.

June 23 saw yet another band of thunderstorms pass through Wake County, this time triggering a second-alarm fire at townhouses on Hempshire Place in Raleigh. Before these storms passed, calls for an additional five working fires were dispatched.

These are merely the highlights of what has been a very active spring, and many other incidents occurred on days not discussed in detail. What began as a prolonged drought ended with record-breaking rainfall. In fact, the normal monthly average precipitation was more than doubled by a single storm. But more important than a discussion of the weather is an analysis of the impact that these recurring events had upon communications.

Dispatch never became overly backlogged with fire calls at any point due to the use of voice-synthesized assignment software and the reduction of units dispatched to minor calls. This provided for a steady stream of alerting and more available companies. As a result of the April 22 experiences, however, discussions are underway concerning the expansion of the computer recommendations to include additional companies.

CAD also became a concern during the events of June 14 due to slow performance. Remote workstations used by fire and EMS stations for monitoring and report writing had to be taken off line to reduce the load. Troubleshooting has corrected some issues, but the investigation into the sluggishness continues.

Communications with units in the field was never an issue, save for the increased volume of transmissions. City and county units share an 800-MHz trunked radio system. While the Durham County departments operate on a different 800-MHz net, common channels have been created between the two networks to allow for interoperability. Communications from the public was at times too good. The center fielded many unnecessary calls concerning power outages that did not involve safety. Civilian reports of and questions about the loss of residential electricity have become a nationwide problem that places added burden on telecommunicators when they are at their busiest. The lessons learned will be used to adjust both equipment and procedures in order to better deal with future occurrences of severe weather.

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