Customers often request help from General Motors' OnStar service. But a call from Houston last week stood out.
"We had one gentleman whose home was right in the eye of the storm," said Cathy Bishop, OnStar's global emergency services manager in Detroit. "He had no power, no cellphone service — his cellphone 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."
Local emergency responders, over-whelmed with calls for help, turned to 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 Bishop.
OnStar also handled evacuation requests as local 911 centers were backed up. OnStar worked with local emergency leaders on a system in which OnStar customers could call OnStar, which would then alert the local 911 system about rescue requests via email if the callers were not in immediate danger. OnStar has also given callers evacuation routes and contacted family or friends for those in need.
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. By the middle of last week, it had taken more than 18,500 storm-related calls, 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."
OnStar's four North American call centers have 50 administrators and more than 300 call takers.
Staffing during the crisis wasn't a problem.
"Our advisers are seeing this as a privilege to support people in this crisis event," Bishop said. "We've had an overwhelming response of people wanting to be picked to support these callers."