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AFD calls for more rescue boats, improved notification systems

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 by Gene Davis

Just more than a month after the Halloween flood devastated parts of Austin and Travis County, Austin Fire Department representatives told the Public Safety Commission Monday that more rescue boats and an improved emergency notification system are needed to better respond to future natural disasters.


AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans stressed that the city and fire department still need to complete a full analysis of their response to the flood that affected approximately 1,100 homes in Austin and another 260 in county jurisdiction. A complete analysis that examines the disaster response’s shortcomings, lessons learned from those shortcomings and how to handle such issues in the future could be completed by March.


“I will tell you that on that day (of the Halloween floods), your firefighters, police officers, and paramedics did a fantastic and exceptional job in their rescue efforts,” Evans told commissioners. “However, as noted early on in one of the Town Hall meetings, there are strategic areas where we are not satisfied with some of our efforts. We need to collectively identify what some of those areas are … look at each one of those, and develop plans of action on how we are going to address them going forward.”


AFD Captain Mathew Rush told commissioners that the AFD Halloween flood rescue efforts began with a response to an 11pm call in Pflugerville. By 8:30am the next morning, AFD had responded to more than 750 incidents, 120 of which were flood related, he said.


AFD used boats and helicopters to rescue people stranded by water. AFD has five boats at its disposal during such rescue efforts, which Evans and other speakers implied is not enough.


“From the Fire Department’s perspective, given some weather extremes we’ve seen in the last several years with unprecedented droughts and now floods of epic proportions, we have to ask ourselves are our rescue boats in the right place based on what we see now and do we have enough of them?” he said.


Evans said the department will consider better ways to use Reverse 911, which delivers emergency notifications to people in a select area. Reverse 911, which became available to the city around 2006, requires people to register their cellphone to their home address in order to get alerts on that phone. The system also calls all landlines in a designated area during an emergency.


“There is a lot more we can do with that tool. We need to endeavor to find out what that is and be sure we use it to its fullest extent,” Evans said


Commissioner Michael Levy suggested that the city get cellphone customers’ billing addresses from the major cellphone providers and have them in case emergency notification is necessary.


“I’d think on your shopping list of things to cover, this ought to have as good a notification system as possible,” he told Evans.


In addition to assessing the potential need for more boats and a better notification system, Evans said the department will consider best evacuation practices and whether additional staff is needed on duty during potential flooding situations.


Mario Cantu, a neighborhood representative from an area affected by the flooding, said he hopes the analysis also examines issues such as whether upstream impervious cover causes more flooding.


“It’s not necessarily about pointing fingers or who made the mistake of what, it’s about fixing the mistake and taking action and having a solution,” he said.

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