2013 Texas Legislative Session

28 01 2013

Every two years the Texas Legislature comes together to do the business of the State of Texas.  The Legislature started its 2013 Session on Tuesday, January 8, 2013.  There are 43 new members in the 150 member House which means that the Legislature will be fairly inexperienced as they tackle critical issues, like fiscal policy, education spending, health care programs for the poor, water conservation, gun rights, and cancer research.

texas capitol

During the 140 day session of the 83rd Legislature, this blog will attempt to highlight issues and proposed legislation affecting emergency management.  Many topics to be discussed will affect how emergency management is conducted by the State of Texas; and by cities and counties within the State.

With the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, issues of gun control will be a hot button topic for the Legislature this year.  Ben Kamisar, a reporter for the Austin-American Statesman, published an article on Thursday, January 17, 2013, discussing a new gun bill filed by State Senator Brian Birdwell.  Kamisar reports that:

The issue of allowing concealed handgun permit holders to carry weapons at colleges and universities was reignited Thursday, when state Sen. Brian Birdwell filed a bill similar to one that narrowly missed becoming law in 2011.

Birdwell’s bill, like the one filed in 2011, calls for concealed carry to be allowed on public university property while giving private colleges and universities the option of prohibiting it. A new section strengthens language affirming that carrying a concealed handgun isn’t permitted on the grounds of hospitals, preschools and elementary and secondary schools on college grounds.

“For me, this isn’t just about the firearm,” Birdwell, R-Granbury, said in a statement. “It’s about trusting citizens with their God-given, constitutional rights.”

The hot-button issue returned to center-stage after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings that killed 26 people. Gun-rights advocates hope that tragedy will lead lawmakers and the public to view allowing guns at colleges as making campuses safer.

“There’s a more compelling reason than ever for adults with a concealed handgun license attending a college or university (to) be allowed to have that personal protection option,” said Alice Tripp, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association. “It brings forward the realization that a gun-free zone is not a violence-free location.”

John Woods, the lead organizer for Students for Gun-Free Schools in Texas and a survivor of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, still isn’t persuaded.

“I talk to a lot of people that were there (Virginia Tech), and not a single one of the survivors think this would help in any way,” said Woods, who lost his girlfriend in the 2007 shooting.

Woods said he felt frustrated that the bill was reintroduced in spite of opposition from the university community. Gary Susswein, University of Texas at Austin’s Director of Media Relations, said the university’s position remains the same: Guns aren’t appropriate on campus and won’t enhance security.

However, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus is active on the Austin campus.

Currently, handgun permits don’t allow concealed handguns in university buildings or classrooms. In 2011, a bill to change that was filed with strong support from both chambers of the Legislature; 15 of the 31 senators and more than 80 of the 150 House members signed on as co-authors.

However, the bill was blocked from debate in the Senate after two senators who supported campus-carry in 2009, Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, withdrew their support. Its sponsor ultimately got it through the Senate by attaching it as an amendment to a higher education bill. But the House stripped the amendment from the bill, citing a rules violation.



Napolitano to remain at DHS

22 01 2013

As written by Mark Rockwell and published by Government Security News on January 15th, 2013:

Current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano will remain in her post for president Obama’s second term, according to White House officials. Napolitano has been DHS Secretary since 2009. She may become a key player in Obama’s second term, as the administration has vowed to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the coming weeks.

Senior administration officials have floated plans to overhaul the immigration system and have said the strategy would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. The new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee welcomed the White House announcement that Napolitano would remain at DHS.

“The Department of Homeland Security faces many challenges in maintaining its ability to protect the American people,” said committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) in a statement on Jan. 14. “From the threat of cyber attacks to securing our border and transportation systems, DHS plays a critical role in developing and executing domestic policy. I look forward to working with Secretary Napolitano, and hope that she and this administration will commit to reforming DHS to be more efficient and effective in strengthening our defenses against terrorism, both from overseas and here at home.”

A Need for Balanced Discussion about the Use of Drones

19 01 2013

Much as been written in recent months about the use of drones, both by the military and also by local governments.  For some the use of drones is an assistance to securing the nation and providing a practical tool to aid responders after a disaster.  However, for others, the use of drones is an invasion into civil liberties.  Last month, Senator Tom Coburn, released a study, entitled “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.” 

In his study of homeland security grant purchases, he takes the opportunity to focus on the use of drones by local governments.  Specifically, the study states that “the deployment of [drones] raises important questions about American citizens’ constitutional rights and the appropriate balance between improving security and freedom.  Federal, state, and local policymakers must carefully consider whether new law enforcement tools and strategies protect freedom or threaten civil liberties.”

The report then goes on to cite the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program as a program that has helped local jurisdictions “purchase and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles across the country without careful implications of the long-term implications.”  It is unclear what is actually meant by this awkwardly worded sentence.  The report provides several examples of local governments that have purchased drones for law enforcement; traffic accident investigation; barricade situation; and search/rescue missions.  None of the examples document a use of a drone which actually invades any citizen’s privacy.  This is a bit disconcerting because much of the discussion of the report by the media clearly indicates a negativity toward drones.

I have recently blogged about the use of drones in the Houston region and have tried to provide “balanced” information about the issues surrounding the use of such equipment.  One was entitled “Are Drones a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?”—which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/12/are-drones-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/  Another blog entry discussed the privacy issues raised by the use of drones in California– which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/17/drones-versus-privacy-advocates-in-california/  As with most anything in life, there are good things AND bad things about the use of drones.  The use of drones, as noted in the article reprinted below, provides a wonderful opportunity to use technology to save lives and limit damage to property.  It is a fantastic tool that can be used by first responders. 

Can a drone be misused?  I am sure it can and there are federal agencies that regulate the use of such equipment such as the FAA and DHS.  Reasonable regulation of the use of such equipment is completely understandable and should be done so that such equipment is not improperly used.  Throwing stones at the purchase and use of drones, as the above study appears to do, is not helpful.  It does not lead to useful discussion.  A balanced approach is needed.  As you will read in the article below, there is a tremendous amount of good that can be done using a drone during a disaster.  You will also see that the capabilities of such drones are nothing like a military drone.  They are far less capable of doing the bad things that some people think is possible.  On the other hand, they have the potential of doing much good for many people during an emergency.

The following is an article written by Brian Heaton for Emergency Management magazine.  It was published on December 12, 2012.  The article was originally published by Government Technology magazine.

Aerial Drone Aids in Chemical Train Derailment Response

The use of unmanned aerial drones may raise privacy and safety questions for some people, but the technology’s life-saving benefits are well worth the risk for Louisville Emergency Management Agency Director Doug Hamilton.

Faced with a chemical train derailment in the southwest area of Jefferson County, Ky., in October, Hamilton sent in an aerial drone to take photographs and observe the scene. The drone sent back valuable information that helped Hamilton evaluate the situation without risking the lives of emergency personnel who normally would have approached the area on foot.
The derailment of the Paducah & Louisville Railway train occurred in an area where the tracks were elevated on a hill, and the side where the train derailed slopes down toward the Ohio River. As a result, responders could only get to the train from one side. The drone provided Hamilton’s team with a view and focus that they wouldn’t have otherwise had in the situation.

“It helped us refine our questions when the contractors submitted their plans for moving the cars, what the risks were going to be and what the evacuation zones were going to be, where we would not have been able to do otherwise,” Hamilton said.

The drone was brought in after a fire ignited as contractors were preparing to move a rail car containing butadiene — a flammable gas that is shipped liquefied and can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and drowsiness and dizziness. Exposure to butadiene can also damage the central nervous and reproductive systems.

That car was up against another car containing hydrogen fluoride, a chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage. The fire set up a potentially explosive situation where the toxic chemicals could be released in the air. Residents were evacuated throughout the area.

Hamilton explained that when the butadiene car ignited and the flame was hitting the top of the rail car holding the hydrogen fluoride, it began to boil the latter chemical. Without keeping the temperature down, a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) could occur, which could hurl the rail car thousands of feet and vaporize the hydrogen fluoride, creating a toxic inhalation hazard.

While water at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute was being dumped on the railcar for several hours to keep it cool and avoid an explosion, Hamilton felt his team had to have a better view on what was going on.

“Ordinarily, we as a jurisdiction don’t get involved in the ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ of how a contractor is going to deal with a hazardous materials response and clean up,” Hamilton said. “But as a result of the fire on Wednesday [Oct. 31], there was somewhat of a jolt to our confidence and more of an awareness on our level that we needed to be exactly clear on what the contractor intended on doing.”

Responders first called in a police helicopter to take fly-over photos. But while Hamilton said the photos from it were handy, the possibility of a large explosion made using the helicopter a risky move.

At that point, Hamilton was told an aerial drone called the Datron Scout was available. Provided by Drone Systems, the drone and the company’s president Joel Embry was on-scene on Nov. 1 to control the vehicle. Able to zip in and out of the scene in 20-minute increments, the drone took photos of the area without putting the lives of responders in jeopardy.

“It’s a hell of a lot better [quality] photos than we were getting from a helicopter, which can’t be as stable as a drone is,” Hamilton said.

Although the drone operated well, the deployment in this particular situation wasn’t perfect.

The initial plan was to use the drone for live video transmissions so that responders could evaluate the situation in real time. But the idea was nixed due to connectivity and compatibility issues between the drone and the incident command center.

Hamilton explained that the drone’s video operated using Apple’s QuickTime software. While that doesn’t seem too big of a hurdle, the equipment being used by emergency responders didn’t have the software. In addition, the state’s command vehicle also couldn’t connect to the video, and in the interest of time, Hamilton abandoned the idea and went with just aerial photos from the drone.

The images weren’t delivered wirelessly, however. The drone flew out to the site, took pictures and then had to fly back to where responders were located so they could download them and view the scene.

Rick Bobo, regional response manager for Region 4 of Kentucky Emergency Management, a division of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, said his goal is to make sure that the communication link between the state’s command vehicle and the drone is established for the next time the technology is used.

While Bobo wasn’t on the scene, he said state representatives tried to establish the uplink, but were lacking the proper equipment to get the drone’s video feed to function properly. But they now know what they need to make it happen and it’s just a matter of getting it completed.

Despite the video hiccup, Hamilton is fully on board with using an aerial drone during other emergency situations in the future. Because the incident lasted for 19 days, emergency personnel had plenty of time to talk about the drone and other applications where it would be valuable to use.

“If we had the drone on day one, we would have had a better appreciation initially of exactly what kind of a problem we had here,” Hamilton said. “The drone moved from down at the bottom of our grant request list to closer to the top.”

School Shootings: Inventor creates device designed to slow down an active shooter

15 01 2013

As we know from the recent shooting tragedies in our country, most recently the school shooting in Newtown Connecticut, there is now much contentious discussion on what should be done to stop such shootings.  Some think it involves gun control laws; others feel it involves more training for citizens and teachers; and others feel it involves spending more more to bolster the mental health systems in the United States.  In all likelihood, it will probably involve some changes in all of the above.  And, as we all know, shootings will probably still take place.  There is no one magical solution that will stop the horror of shootings in malls and schools. 

However, one former teach in Pennsylvania has created a device that may add another piece of the puzzle; a piece that will not stop all shootings, but simply might slow down the ability of an active shooter to enter individual classrooms in a school.  This could be very important device since it seems that many of these shooters end their own lives at the first sign of intervention by law enforcement.  The key would seem to be to slow down the shooters ability to kill and give law enforcement more time to get to the scene to remove the threat.  Here is information from WTAE (Channel 4 News) in Pittsburgh:

Teacher’s invention won’t stop shootings, but can keep students safer
The elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has created a heightened awareness for students and teachers across the country as they prepare to return to the classroom after the holidays, but a Westmoreland County man’s invention could help keep them safer.

“We in law enforcement need to be speeded up as much as we can, and we need to be able to slow down the actor as much as we can so those two events cross paths,” said Penn Township Police Chief John Otto.

That’s where the JAMBLOCK comes in. The lightweight piece of steel was invented by a Bob Ploskunak, who spent a combined 35 years as a teacher and a security director for the Woodland Hills School District.

“It saves time. It creates time for the police to respond,” said Ploskunak.

The JAMBLOCK is already in classrooms and offices in two area school districts and has been drawing more interest since the Newtown shooting.

“Parents are starting to ask school districts, ‘What are they doing?’ Parents are more concerned now. They’re pushing the issue versus dusting off the old security plan,” said Ploskunak.

During an emergency, a teacher could place the JAMBLOCK under a classroom door and secure it in place. Even if someone broke through the glass and tried to nudge the handle, it still wouldn’t open.

“It’s not the answer, but it gets us closer to the answer, and that’s what we need to do,” said Ploskunak.

The JAMBLOCK costs about $80.

This appears to be an interesting invention.  I am not sure what law enforcement thinks about the invention.  And, there could be some issues related to health and safety codes, but it does offer a new way to think about how to improve school safety.  The video of the WTAE report can be found at:



Emergency responders ask FCC to expand broadcasts – POLITICO.com

10 01 2013

By Brooks Boliek   |   1/8/13 9:30 PM EST

The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the shooting in Newtown, Conn., are renewing a push by emergency responders to expand a low-power AM radio service used to give travelers traffic information.

From California to New Jersey, public-safety officials are urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow them to expand the information they can broadcast on the stations beyond congestion and traffic issues that are the staple of the service.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/01/emergency-responders-ask-fcc-to-expand-broadcasts-85913.html#ixzz2Hav6veAV

The Value of Travelers’ Information Radio Stations

9 01 2013

Travelers’ Information Stations are operated by governmental entities for the purpose of broadcasting information by low-wattage AM radio to the traveling public.  Fort Bend County operates 1670 AM, and other jurisdictions in Fort Bend County also operate such stations (Missouri City, Stafford, Sugar Land); sometimes referred to simply as “TIS.”  Agencies operating a TIS must be licensed, operate in the AM Broadcast Band; are limited to a 10 watt transmitter output tower; and may not transmit commercial information.

Fort Bend County belongs to the American Association of Information Radio Operators (AAIRO).  AAIRO is comprised of 346 members, consisting of government agencies and associated individuals in the public safety community in the United States.  For several years, AAIRO has advocated for changes in the regulations governing TIS;  the organization is requesting specific changes to FCC regulations so that such stations are authorized to broadcast critical weather and safety information to the traveling public in advance of, during, and following disasters and emergencies.  By doing so, TIS can assist in mitigating the loss of life and property.

It is hoped that the FCC will take into account the experiences of coastal communities in New Jersey that experienced severe weather during the landfall of Hurricane Sandy last year.  As you will see below, these AM radio stations became the primary source of information for citizens during and after the storm due to the failures of other means of communication.  As reported in The Source newsletter, October 2012, here is the story of what occurred in Manasquan, New Jersey:

Withstanding Sandy

Hurricane Sandy slammed ashore south of this New Jersey coastal community on October 29. Ninety MPH winds pushed a wall of water into flood-prone Manasquan, causing massive flooding. Emergency Manager Chris Tucker tapped his Information Radio Station on AM 1620 to be the solitary source to keep residents apprised, with the anticipation that “data and internet connections might be compromised.” They were. Additionally, his station’s antenna system encountered enormous winds and was engulfed by 3 feet of storm surge. It kept working. The station’s battery backup – occasionally charged via generator – powered the station continuously through the storm.

Manasquan operates an Alert AM Information Radio Station with a hurricane wind rated antenna system, designed to withstand gusts of up to 150mph. Several flashing alert signs are positioned on local roads to alert motorists.
Eighty miles downshore near Sandy’s landfall, Police Chief Robert Matteucci of North Wildwood, NJ, utilized his 1640 signal to protect life and property. The signal remained on the air throughout the storm. The broadcast
, which was simulcast to the Internet, advised residents how to find assistance and provided emergency numbers for electric and gas companies. The internet stream was monitored by more than 1000 people in nine states, some as far away as California. Internet listeners to North Wildwood’s stream logged more than 14,400 minutes the day Sandy made landfall.
Manasquan’s and North Wildwood’s Information Radio Stations comprise but 2 of more than 40 stations installed in NJ in the past 10 years to protect citizens’ lives/property in a disaster.

At North Plainfield, NJ, operator Rich Phoenix comments, “Only radio stations and battery or crank-powered receivers will survive [during a disaster]. Local information is king; and the TIS stations are top of the heap.”

AAIRO’s Petition Docket 09-19 for rulemaking as been under consideration by the FCC for a very long time with no action being taken by the FCC.  Many communities across the nation, including many along the coast in New Jersey, have written letters to the FCC supporting the AAIRO position.  Now is the time, that the FCC revise TIS content rules to specifically state that weather forecasts (e.g. NOAA radio rebroadcasts), warnings, and emergency preparedness information can be broadcast at any time— before, during, and after a disaster—as a means of mitigating loss of life and damage to property.

Failure Is Not An Option – John Sheardown

7 01 2013

Periodically, I like to feature background on individuals who exemplify the phrase “failure is not an option.”  Today, I am providing information written about John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat who helped to save the lives of six Americans during the 1979 hostage taking event at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.  The following article was published in The Washington Post on January 1, 2013.  The article was written by Adam Bernstein.

John Sheardown dies; Canadian diplomat sheltered Americans in Iran hostage crisis

John Sheardown, an unflappable Canadian diplomat in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis who helped shelter six American “house guests” until they were secretly shuttled out of the country, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in Ottawa. He was 88. He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Zena Sheardown.

In the events that became known as the “Canadian Caper,” Mr. Sheardown was serving officially as the top immigration official at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. Recounting the 1979 ordeal, historian Robert Wright wrote that the portly, ruddy-faced Mr. Sheardown “exuded the sort of quiet but unyielding resolve that made him a natural leader in a crisis.”

Iran, Hostage Taking, 1979The strife began when an Iranian mob seized the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and took 52 Americans hostage in retaliation for Western support for the recently deposed shah. As was retold in the Ben Affleck film “Argo” (2012), six Americans managed to evade the hostage takers.

Mr. Sheardown became a vital — but necessarily discreet — point of contact for the desperate Americans seeking sanctuary. When the mission proved successful, he was often overshadowed in the public imagination by more prominent government officials.

He figured in a 1981 Canadian television film, “Escape from Iran,” and later in books as a loyal and daring supporting player. More noticeably featured were Canadian officials including Prime Minister Joseph Clark, Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald and Ken Taylor, the gregarious ambassador to Iran lauded by Time magazine as the rescue plot’s “mastermind and instant hero.”

Most recently, Victor Garber portrayed Taylor in “Argo.” Mr. Sheardown was not a character in the film. But as Kathleen Stafford, one of the American “house guests,” recalled in an interview Tuesday, Mr. Sheardown was “a lifesaver” at a time when she and her colleagues feared for their safety.

In the days after the U.S. Embassy takeover, the six fugitive Americans assumed that the turmoil would subside quickly. They hid in the homes of their abducted colleagues and spent brief periods in other embassies, but tensions continued to build in the city and their security became ever more precarious. John Sheardown

Robert Anders, another of the American diplomats seeking haven, knew Mr. Sheardown and called him to request official protection.

“Why didn’t you call sooner?” Mr. Sheardown replied.

Five of the six Americans arranged passage to the Sheardown residence in the suburbs north of Tehran and arrived on Nov. 10. Mr. Sheardown, who had helped obtain permission from Ottawa, phoned Taylor to say that the “house guests” had arrived. They were soon followed by the sixth American, Henry Lee Schatz, who had been hiding at the Swedish Embassy.

The Taylors took Stafford and her husband, Joseph. The other four — Anders, Schatz, and Mark and Cora Lijek — remained with the Sheardowns.

“We were under surveillance,” Mr. Sheardown once told an interviewer. “We had tanks at one end of the street and a fellow that walked up and down. They were always suspicious.”

During the two months they quartered the Americans, the Sheardowns took creative precautions to avoid tipping off the authorities. To feed the extra mouths — especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas — they bought groceries at different stores to disguise the amount of food consumed at the home.

Mr. Sheardown took garbage with him on the route to work, to camouflage the amount of refuse they were generating. The CIA arranged preparations for the Americans’ departure, which became urgent as the Iranians erected roadblocks around the city and rumors of the house guests spread among Western media.On Jan. 28, 1980, the six Americans were spirited out of the country with fake Canadian passports and disguised as members of a Hollywood film crew. Schatz once told The Washington Post that his suitcase had been stuffed with strategic items, including a T-shirt advertising Canada’s Molson Ale.

Soon afterward, the Sheardowns also left the country. The remaining American captives from the embassy were held in Iranian custody for almost another year — until Jan. 21, 1981, after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president.

John Vernon Sheardown was born in Sandwich, now part of Windsor, Ontario, on Oct. 11, 1924. At 18, he joined the Canadian air force and served in Europe during World War II. He once broke both legs after jumping from a plane at low altitude on a training mission over England.

After the war, Mr. Sheardown spent several years in the Canadian army before joining the immigration service in the early 1960s and later the foreign service. He retired by the early 1990s.

His first marriage, to Kathleen Benson, ended in divorce. In 1975, he married Zena Khan. Besides his wife, of Ottawa, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Robin Sheardown and John Sheardown Jr.; two sisters; and six grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Jackie Hunter, died in 2007.

John and Zena Sheardown, 2010

In the aftermath of the Iranian crisis, Taylor and Mr. Sheardown received the Order of Canada, one of their country’s highest civilian honors. Mr. Sheardown waged a public and ultimately successful campaign to recognize his wife with the same award. Patricia Taylor, the ambassador’s wife, also received the prize.

“The men went to the office every day,” Mr. Sheardown told the New York Times in 1981. “The wives had a 24-hour responsibility. What we did was a normal extension of our functions. What they did was extraordinary.”

John Sheardown was clearly a humble man who did not have any problem doing the right thing when called upon to act.  He is a hero by any definition.  His service to his country was distinguished and when called upon to assist the Americans; his response was not hesitation, but “why did you wait to call me?”  An unsung hero— even when they made a movie about the events of that time; he was not mentioned.  Poetic license I suppose.  But, I am glad he was around in 1979 and 1980 to aid those who needed help at that critical time.