Last weekend, many emergency responders in Fort Bend County did not get a day off on Saturday. Instead, on March 3rd, many were called to duty in the early morning hours. A major incident had occurred in El Campo, in neighboring Wharton County. The County’s Technical Rescue Team responded. Response came from the Fort Bend Regional SWAT Team. Fort Bend County OEM sent a Communications Trailer staffed by volunteer members of the County’s Emergency Management Radio Operators Group (EMROG). Fortunately, this response was not to an actual incident, but, instead, the responders were participating in a Statewide Deployment Readiness Exercise. The Fort Bend County Emergency Operations Center was activated also— all in support of the field teams responding to El Campo.
Much of the response equipment used during the day has been acquired through homeland security grants. The development of regional capabilities, like the Technical Rescue Team and the SWAT Team, provides critical services to Fort Bend County citizens on a daily basis when required. However, when necessary, these assets can be sent to neighboring counties in the Houston-Galveston region to provide assistance not available in other areas. For example, during the wildfires last year, Fort Bend County fire departments and the County’s Road and Bridge Department, sent apparatus to Waller and Colorado counties to fight the wildfires.
Shannon Crabtree, reporter for the El Campo Leader-News, wrote an article about the activities faced by the responders on March 3rd as they arrived at the El Campo Fire Training Field. Ms. Crabtree reported in an article published on March 7, 2012:
When the illusion “It can’t happen here” shatters, they’re the ones expected to pick up the pieces.Hundreds of those disaster responders rushed to El Campo this weekend for, what citizens can be thankful, was only a drill.
The scenario was one public officials have nightmares about – a chemical flooding a building’s air system, dozens dead, hundreds exposed, a hostage, a bomb, people trapped and even more in danger. In the drill, El Campo responders – police, fire and EMS – rush in first only to discover the situation is far beyond what they have the manpower or expertise to address.
Around 4 a.m., they call for help. The call was simulated – after all this is only a drill – but around 500 people actually got woke up by a ringing phone in the pre-dawn hours Saturday. Most of those roused were from the Texas National Guard’s Joint Task Force 71 which mustered near Austin and then raced to El Campo Saturday with 67 units including a mobile decontamination station.
Then there were the members of the Fort Bend County Regional SWAT team and the Baytown Fire Department’s regional heavy rescue team, the Civil Defense team, Texas Department of Emergency Management workers, and a whole host of other law enforcement officers and emergency responders.
“We’re available to anyone who calls in the region,” SWAT Capt. Scott Soland said. “We got called at 4:30 this morning.” The SWAT team dealt with the hostage situation immediately after a hazardous materials team checked for unseen dangers in the air.
The goal of this weekend’s drill was simple.
“All we want to do is test to see if you can respond,” Texas Emergency Management Regional Liaison David Popoff told those gathered.
They all did – quickly by all accounts. Nothing even remotely like the scenario played out at the El Campo Volunteer Fire Department’s Training Field Saturday has ever happened in Wharton County.
But that’s no guarantee for the future. A quick flip through a national newspaper or a nightly news program shows just how quickly a small-town atmosphere can change from mild to madness.
“There’s a ton of resources available,” El Campo Police Chief Terry Stanphill said. “It’s comforting to know there’s that much help out there.”
The El Campo PD has an emergency plan, but a limited number of officers. At some point, they would have to call for help as would the EMS department or the all-volunteer fire department.
“We’ve never had anything of a long duration,” Stanphill said. “The worst thing I remember is an ice storm. That shut everything down for 36 hours.”
Saturday was a drill. “But if this had been a real event, we would have had more resources than we needed,” the chief said. “That’s good.
“And the volunteers really did a good job with this. Like Phillip Urbanovsky and Servando Chapa, but that’s not to take anything away from the rest. They did a wonderful job.”
The drill was a great learning experience for El Campo emergency responders, EMS Chief Jimmy George Jr. and Fire Chief Jimmy Nielsen both said. “Overall, it was an incredibly great experience for us emergency responders,” George said, adding the drill showed local workers not only just how quickly they could be overwhelmed by a major event, but also how quickly they could call for help.
“There are people out there, resources out there to back us up,” the EMS chief said. “It’s good to know the state and federal government will be here.
“And the military is not just going to respond after the fact. They are going to respond and try to save lives.”
Collectively, the organizations participating in the drill are the Homeland Response Team for this FEMA region. “This was a very educational experience for El Campo,” Nielsen said. “We found out there are a lot of resources from the state and other local entities that we can call upon if we have had an incident like this for real.
“I had no idea this level of help was available,” he added. “The state called in people I didn’t have any idea existed.” The exercise taught local responders a lot about planning and utilizing available resources like the city’s recently-connected citizen messaging system, the fire chief said.
“This weekend was lots of education,” Nielsen said. “I hope we never have to use it.”