Fort Bend County responders test skills on March 3rd

12 03 2012

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.”

Mosquitoes invade after rains and in unusually warm temperatures

2 03 2012

First a drought.  Then lots of rain in January and February.  And now, as the Houston Chronicle recently reported, the Houston metropolitan area, including Fort Bend County, is now seeing an influx of mosquitoes.  Reporter Lomi Kriel reports:

Those nasty blood-sucking creatures that make Houston the mosquito capital of Texas have invaded the region in far greater numbers and much earlier than usual this year, buoyed by recent rains and unseasonably high temperatures. In other words, Houstonians, brace yourselves and stock up on insect repellent. An especially itchy and uncomfortable spring looms.

In Fort Bend County, for instance, inspectors are finding up to 200 mosquitoes in some traps, compared with the dozen or so that is typical for February. In Galveston County, inspectors are counting about 80 mosquitoes a minute between their belts and ankles. (A normal measure is about 20.) And in Harris County, officials trapped nearly double the amount of mosquitoes – 9,775 – this February as compared with last year.

“I have a feeling there’s going to be a more severe outbreak than we normally see,” said Jim Ryan, Brazoria County’s mosquito control director. Why is nature being so cruel? For one, Houston had the eighth-wettest February on record, with nearly 6 inches of rainfall measured at the airport last month – a stark contrast to 2011’s seemingly never-ending dry spell.

Houston has recorded more than 11 inches of rain so far this year – as much as during the first nine months of 2011. Culminating in the perfect breeding ground for mosquito mania, February has also been about 3.5 degrees warmer than usual, with an average temperature of 60.1 degrees recorded at the airport. In mosquito speak, last year’s drought conditions meant fewer babies. Many mosquito eggs couldn’t hatch because it was too dry. Jim Dennett, a Harris County mosquito control research manager, explained: “A little bit of dirt and water, add an egg, and instant mosquito.

“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “I’ve found them in bottle caps. But all mosquitoes require at least some water for development.”

Yet mosquito eggs, the epitome of resilience, can survive in drainage ditches or other dark, warm patches for years until enough water builds up. Thus last month’s rains unleashed millions, adding to an already crowded landscape. The warm winter meant that Houston’s existing mosquito pool wasn’t decimated as thoroughly as nature decrees.

“Basically, we’re coming out with a net surplus in February,” said Raleigh Jenkins, owner of ABC Home and Commercial Services, one of Houston’s largest pesticide companies. “It is, as one would say, a bumper crop.” For businessmen like Jenkins, this is good news, particularly after last year’s relatively low mosquito activity during the drought.

“We’re making up for it,” he said.

His company typically doesn’t run advertisements for misting or other mosquito abatement systems until late March, he said, and a mosquito-related call is rare. But this February, Jenkins was getting 10 to 15 calls a day. For everyone else, however, it’s a pain. John Marshall, Galveston County’s director of mosquito control, said his inspectors have already been spraying for three weeks. Last year, they only began spraying in earnest in August.

In Brazoria County, officials simply never stopped, continuing through the winter – only the third time in 12 years that officials said they had such a high level of activity at this time of year. Other than being a nuisance, some mosquito species can pose a health risk, carrying St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile virus, both of which can be fatal. But officials said those diseases are mainly found in the Culex species. Most of the mosquitoes recently unleashed are floodwater mosquitoes, which don’t carry the diseases.

Statewide, no mosquitoes have tested positive for West Nile or other diseases since the middle of November, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman said. Meanwhile, across town, the Sugar Land Skeeters, the city’s new professional baseball team, are preparing for their inaugural season in April. Might one consider the great mosquito invasion of 2012 a lucky omen?

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Bryan Hodge, a spokesman. “Yes, our mascot is the skeeter … but we’re not a fan of the mosquito.”