Houston emergency officials tell 911 callers not to hang up

Houston 911 system overwhelmed
Houston 911 system overwhelmed 02:47

Houston's flooding disaster is pushing the limits of its emergency call services. As Tropical Storm Harvey dumped historic amounts of rain, 911 operators in Houston processed 75,000 calls between Friday night and Monday morning. Normally, the city gets 8,000 to 9,000 calls per day and many people who need help have complained about their calls going unanswered. 

But while 75,000 calls have been received and processed since Harvey first hit, that number doesn't include the thousands of other calls that never make it to the front of the call line. Officials say when people call and hang up without waiting to speak to someone who can help, it creates a backlog. That could mean it takes a lot longer for police and fire crews to make much-needed rescues, reports CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan.

"We're advising people to go ahead and stay on the line," said Joe Laud, the administration manager at the Houston Emergency Center.  

Asked how quickly police are getting dispatched to people who are stranded, Laud said, "We prepare that information for dispatch purposes, and of course we can't speak for police and fire response, because they're tied up with so many emergencies as well," Laud said. 

Laud says the 911 problem is complicated when people hang up and try calling back. 

"The worst thing they can do is hang up because what ends up happening is, it's almost – they're back at the end of the line," Laud said.   

More than 200 people have been working 12-hour shifts since Saturday; normally just 25 people are answering those phones.

For operator Katherine Tyler, who lost her car and her home, the work has become personal.

"I love this job. I've been doing this job for about four and a half years. They need help, my co-workers, they're working long hours, I needed to get here and help them," Tyler said.

The emergency center also has a voice-activated system telling people their calls are being processed, but some of these cases just can't wait. There have been a number of calls involving women in labor so call-takers have had to literally talk people through home deliveries.