DETROIT — As Harvey, the hurricane turned tropical storm, lingers above southeast Texas and Louisiana, local emergency responders remain overwhelmed with calls for help. To cope, they are asking General Motors subsidiary OnStar for assistance.
“We are assisting the Red Cross with overflow calls. It’s something they asked us to do because we have the expertise,” said Cathy Bishop, OnStar’s global emergency services manager in Detroit. “But given all the tragedy down there, we are trying to act as one team and not draw lines as to who’s doing what. We have leveraged capacity across all of our call centers to be of assistance.”
OnStar is also helping take evacuation requests as local 911 centers were backed up due to heavy call volumes. OnStar worked with local emergency leaders on a system whereby OnStar customers could call OnStar, which would then alert the local 911 system of rescue requests via email if the caller was not in immediate danger.
OnStar, which sells subscription-based in-vehicle communications with live operators, has about 200,000 customers in the areas impacted by the storm, Bishop said. Since Saturday, it has taken more than 18,500 calls related to the storm, she said.
No cell service
Many calls are from people in their vehicle in the water, but “we had one gentleman whose home was right in the eye of the storm,” Bishop said. “He had no power, no cell phone service — his cell phone was wet — so he went to his car in his garage and told us his house was ‘crumbling around him.’ We were able to coordinate with the local 911 center to make sure he was safely evacuated.”
OnStar has also given callers evacuation routes and contacted family or friends for those in need, she said.
“What’s new in this situation, that we didn’t have back in Hurricane Katrina, is our connected vehicle and Wi-Fi hotspot,” said Bishop. “So if you’re in a flooded situation and cannot leave your home and you’re without power, you can go to your vehicle and use your laptop and keep in touch with your family. It becomes a lifeline that people didn’t have in years past.”
Bishop did not have data on how many customers had used that service during Harvey.
Bishop and OnStar’s six-member crisis team have been holed up in a situation room next to OnStar’s Command Center in Detroit since last Thursday, continuously monitoring the storm’s developments.
“We can make sure call volume is monitored,” monitor the news and “do conference calls, calls with FEMA and the state of Texas,” Bishop said.
OnStar has four call centers in North America — in Michigan, North Carolina, Ontario and Nova Scotia — with 50 administrators and more than 300 call takers. All the centers have been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week since last Thursday, Bishop said.
“We have unlimited overtime open to make sure we have appropriate staffing levels,” Bishop said. “Our advisors are seeing this as a privilege to support people in this crisis event. We’ve had an overwhelming response of people wanting to be picked to support these callers.”