The phones at the Greater Chennai Corporation’s control room have been ringing non-stop since Saturday night, November 6. Forty-five people — volunteers and corporation officials — have been manning these calls. Since the deluge on November 6, the three integrated call centres have received over 16,000 calls so far. “Most of the calls are about inundation. We broadly categorise these calls into six categories — water inundation, power, health, tree fall etc. We then pass this information on to officials on the ground, who decide, on a need basis, where action needs to be taken,” said MS Prashant, Deputy Commissioner (Works), Chennai Corporation.
However, many of these calls may not be from people who need urgent help but are simply citizens panicking, watching the news and following weather reports. So those who attend the calls are told to rank them according to the categories. “On November 7 morning, we received a call from a family saying their house wall had collapsed and they are trapped inside. This is a call that we prioritised and ground teams were immediately informed. We are also in touch with the NDRF, SDRF, navy, coast guard as well as the fire and rescue teams,” he said.
At the State Emergency Operation Centre at Ezhilagam on Chennai’s Kamarajar Salai too, (the control room run by the state government) prioritising calls is an important task. At this centre, volunteers have been trained by the Red Cross to identify and compartmentalise calls.
The state emergency control room
N Subbaiyan, Director of Disaster Management in Tamil Nadu, was busy directing volunteers at the emergency control room when TNM paid a visit there on Thursday, November 11. The control room received 13,353 calls between November 6 and 4 pm on November 11. “Both volunteers and officials receive calls here. They are trained to identify which calls need urgent intervention. They use various parameters, including judging whether the caller is in distress,” said Subbaiyan. He further explained that calls from people who may have seen a snake enter their compound or water gushing in, or those who reside in a weak structure are immediately reported to respective teams. On the other hand, a complaint of waterlogging on roads is given priority later.
The state emergency operation room has 12 people working every shift. There are three shifts in all. Adjacent to the control room is where 12 officials from 12 different state departments sit and monitor calls. “There are officials from PWD (public works department), health, revenue, police, agriculture and local bodies. It is their responsibility to inform and allocate their teams,” Subbaiyan said.
Several television screens are fixed across the control room, screening flood coverage of Tamil news channels. Subbaiyan said volunteers keep a track of news channels and attend to distress calls based on their coverage if required.
Phanindra Reddy, Principal Secretary, Revenue Administration, who has been also overseeing the operations, said they also run WhatsApp groups with other district officials and control rooms. “The control room also has to do with preparedness and look at IMD forecasts and tell districts to be prepared. We also ask them for reports,” he said.
Both control rooms function throughout the year. While the Chennai Corporation normally has eight lines in the control room, it was increased to 30 lines on November 6, and on November 10, it was further increased to 45 lines with more volunteers outsourced from a company.
The Greater Chennai Corproation control room
Of the 13,450 complaints so far, the Chennai Corporation said it has successfully dealt with 5,500 complaints. A cursory glance at social media platforms shows several people still complaining that the lines are busy or their complaints haven’t been solved.
Prashant said the control room may not always end up solving the problems but it’s there as a source of reassurance. “The reason we decided to increase the lines is that people panic when they are not able to get through. When they go on social media and air their grievance, the panic spreads further. So it is important that we pick as many calls as possible and tell people we are listening and that their complaint has been recorded,” the GCC Deputy Commissioner said.