AUSTIN (KXAN) — South by Southwest is here, and so is the crowd.
“Thousands and thousands more people are coming to Austin,” said Lt. Ken Murphy, emergency communications officer for the Austin Police Department.
To keep downtown safe, APD has beefed up downtown patrols, which include reinforcements from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety, to ensure enough people agents are available.
But police dispatch has its own set of challenges, including operating on separate radio channels dedicated to the event.
“Instead of overloading these sectors with special event calls, we separate them, so we only have regular calls to regular radio channels,” Murphy said. He also said emergency communications cannot come from outside agencies like patrols do, because the systems are too different.
“The need for more people is highlighted when we do these big events like SXSW,” Murphy said.
He said dispatchers and 911 call operators will need to work overtime to fill the four additional positions needed throughout the event.
In a meeting with city officials last month, Murphy said operators currently answer 90% of calls within 10 seconds, as opposed to 2019 when 99% of calls were answered within 10 seconds.
“We’re still hiring,” Murphy said. Here you will find information about vacancies in APD communication.
He said noise complaints are the most common calls during SXSW.
“Many times lower priority calls will be on hold for a while,” he said. “Because the priority is getting officers to respond to calls that pose an immediate threat to life or property.”
Austin 311 does not currently plan to have additional staff on hand, but a spokesperson told us it will adjust if call volumes get too high.
Inside the ODA Emergency Communications Center
It’s quiet as you walk. You can hear the sound of typing on keyboards and a calm, composed voice.
“Austin 911, do you need police, fire, EMS or mental health services?” 911 operator Kelly Stevenson said into her headset.
“I do this because I want to help people,” she told us after watching her in action for an hour.
She’s on the front line when it comes to 911 calls – she’s the first to speak to a caller.
Once a report is made and an agent needs to be dispatched, dispatchers like Aidan Bess take over to communicate directly with the agents.
“Being on the pitch, you never know what to expect. You never know where you’re going to be,” he said.
Among other calls, we heard Stevenson speaking with a person who thought his car may have been stolen, a witness who saw a car hit a pedestrian, a woman reporting a disruption at a business, and a man who had fallen into a out of gas and needed help.
We’ve heard Bess communicate with officers about a gun threat at a store, multiple wellness checks, car crashes and more.
“Multitasking is a must,” he said, while keeping his eyes on his computer screen and his hands tied to his keyboard.
Because there always has to be someone on the phone, two to three “backup dispatchers” work per shift, so employees can use the restroom or leave their desks if they need to.
“We are a 24/7 business,” Bess said.