As people in San Marcos and all across the state faced challenges related to the historic winter weather event last month, the City, its staff and its partners worked tirelessly to meet the community’s needs with compassion, care, and understanding.
“I am proud of the way the City addressed the unprecedented challenges that arose during the winter storms,” said City Manager Bert Lumbreras. “Even while experiencing power interruptions and water outages at their own homes, staff members from across the City put our citizens first and served our community in very dangerous and difficult circumstances.”
City staff from more than a dozen different departments worked thousands of collective hours throughout the week, including overnight and on their days off, to keep San Marcos safe, restore vital resources, find shelter for homeless members of the community, distribute clean water and deliver hot meals.
Not immune from outages and other challenges faced by residents, some employees worked from phones or out of their cars without electric or water service for hours or days at a time to support the community. When drivers got stuck in ice and snow, City staff responded in their own cars to get them to safety. When a mom ran out of milk for her young children, an employee gladly offered the unopened gallon she had in her own refrigerator and another staffer delivered it to the grateful mom.
“Our employees and community members always think outside the box to help each other in times of need, and this storm was no exception,” said Director of Public Safety Chase Stapp. “By working together each day, they delivered critical services and performed tasks beyond their job descriptions.”
San Marcos 911 Dispatch Center Handles Quadruple Number of Calls
A tremendous display of teamwork and ingenuity throughout the storm was found in the San Marcos 911 Center. Dispatchers faced more than four times their average number of daily 911 calls on the worst days of the winter storms, including 1,595 in a single 24-hour period, and nearly tripled 2020’s average weekly call volume between Feb. 14 and Feb. 20.
Some of the increased call volume was attributable to several weather-related issues at partner facilities. A busted pipe caused flooding and equipment failures at the Hays County Emergency Communications Center and forced an evacuation of the facility which houses telecommunicators from the Hays County Sheriff’s Office and the Kyle Police Department.
To ensure that emergency response in the area went uninterrupted, the San Marcos 911 Center absorbed all of the calls that would have normally been routed through the Hays County Emergency Communications Center, including those from areas such as Buda, Wimberly, Dripping Springs, and Driftwood. Two County staff members were sent to the San Marcos facility to assist with the increased call volume while others from Hays County and the Kyle Police Department worked from a temporary facility on handheld radios and backup phone lines. Another adaption came when a generator failure at Texas State’s University Police Department caused telecommunicators from that agency to process calls by hand and coordinate with nearby agencies on personal cellphones.
“Our 911 Centers have worked together closely for years to help each other,” said SMPD Support Services Division Manager Audry Verver. “We support each other without hesitation because we all have the same goal of providing consistent and quality emergency services, even if that means we have to lean on each other to make it happen.”
First Responders Go Above & Beyond
Throughout the event, San Marcos Police responded to an estimated 1,892 calls for service, San Marcos Fire responded to an estimated 587 calls for service, and Hays County EMS responded to an estimated 405 calls for service. Despite the increased call volume, San Marcos firefighters still devoted time to repairing residents’ generators and turning off water lines while San Marcos police officers provided welfare checks, delivered meals, and drove discharged patients home from the hospital. Meanwhile, the increased demand forced employees to work 12-hour shifts, telecommunicators, firefighters, and police officers were unable to travel safely and many slept on cots, couches, and mattresses scattered inside facilities.
“The efforts of the City’s first responders during the unprecedented winter storm prove that they are true public servants,” said SMPD Chief Stan Standridge.
A testament to their devotion to public service came when elderly residents were left without power at the Stone Brook Seniors Community and San Marcos Police, Fire, and Hays County EMS crews responded with food and water. This would not have been possible without our local H.E.B. and Sam’s stores opening after hours so San Marcos personnel could pick up supplies. Donations from the stores also allowed SMPD and SMFD to feed needy members of our community, as well as to provide food for City staff who worked around the clock and were unable to join their families at home.
Virtual Emergency Call Center Excels
To alleviate some of the strain the additional call volume caused for 911 dispatch staff, City employees from multiple departments, including Information Technology and Human Resources, set up and operated an emergency winter weather hotline. Showing care and compassion by giving residents the ability to talk to a live person during a stressful time, the volunteer call center answered more than 2,280 calls around the clock to address residents’ non-emergency concerns, offer them access to resources, and help them work through understandable frustrations caused by storm-related challenges.
Later in the week the call center expanded operations, and contacted more than 8,000 San Marcos Electric Utility customers by phone to provide utility welfare checks as services began to be restored. In a little more than two days, City employees staffing the emergency hotline spent 226 hours, equivalent to more than nine days, on the phone assisting citizens.
“These employees really stepped up to the challenge,” said Director of Information Technology Mike Sturm, who helped set up the hotline. “Their work and dedication proved that the City is truly committed to serving its citizens.”
Successful Homeless Assistance & Food/Water Distribution
The same commitment to service was also evident in the City’s efforts to assist members of the community that had no place to go to escape from the impending frigid temperatures. Code Compliance staff, SMPD’s Homeless Outreach Team, and patrol officers combed the streets for days, offering vouchers and other resources to people in need to get them into shelters or local hotels.
Together with community partners at The Salvation Army, Southside Community Center, and H.O.M.E. Center of Central Texas, they were able to find warm beds for more than 150 people. The number is more than San Marcos’ entire homeless population, according to the most recent Point-in-Time Count conducted by the H.O.M.E. Center. Many more were offered space in temporary warming centers and warming buses brought into neighborhoods with the help of the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District (SMCISD).
Southside Community Center worked to supply meals to San Marcos residents, partnering with Soulful Creations food truck to prepare and distribute more than 10,000 hot meals. Code Compliance and Resource Recovery teams also prepared and delivered thousands of meals and bags filled with food while employees from departments across the City, including Parks and Recreation, helped distribute more than 36,000 bottles of clean water to the community.
Utility & Streets Crews Worked Thousands of Hours During Weather Event
Rolling outages directed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to reduce the electric load on the statewide grid affected all corners of the community and were compounded by localized outages caused as ice accumulated across the area. San Marcos Electric Utility and Water and Wastewater crews worked 24-hours-a-day and clocked more than a thousand hours to restore services to customers. Many of those hours were spent in the ice and snow.
In addition, Transportation crews spent more than a thousand working hours out in the weather to keep our streets passable and safe for those who had to travel. Efforts included:
- Pre-treating roads to prevent ice from forming
- Sanding slick roads and walkways
- Plowing snow
- Closing off dangerous streets and routes
- Repairing traffic signals
“Temperatures below freezing are always challenging, but this group worked non-stop in the most hazardous of conditions to keep service in place for customers and to restore service to those without it,” said Public Services Director Tom Taggart.
Getting through the winter storm proved to be a team effort. The City of San Marcos provided water to our neighbors in Kyle when problems arose there, and then welcomed help from the City of Seguin’s Electric Department to restore service to SMEU customers.
From behind-the-scenes employees answering phones to the hundreds of frontline workers and first responders braving freezing temperatures to respond to citizen needs, the City of San Marcos’ core values of integrity, teamwork, professionalism, customer experience, and innovation were on full display. Throughout the unprecedented winter weather, the staff’s efforts coupled with the support of valuable community partners truly proved we are stronger together.
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