County Municipal Utility Districts Get Ready for 2009 Hurricane Season – Part II

3 08 2009

In my last blog entry, I explained the need for Fort Bend County to improve communications between its EOC and the municipal utility districts located in the County.  This need was identified during After Action Reviews conducted following Hurricane Ike.  Some of the significant steps and actions taken are highlighted below.

Responder Status:  In the first meeting with MUD representatives and operators, it was made clear that in an emergency involving water and wastewater, water district personnel and contractors are first responders.  To some this was a new concept, they thought first responders were only fire, police and EMS.  At this first meeting, districts began to understand that they are responsible for water and sewer services before, during, and after the storm—- that is their charge as a water district and why they are a political subdivision of the State of Texas.  Basically, utility districts must step up to the plate.  The County Judge and Emergency Management Coordinator held meetings to discuss the concerns raised during Ike; and in December 2008, the Judge sent a letter to the districts and operators outlining the program that was being developed.

District Contacts:  During Hurricane Ike, it was sometimes difficult for EOC staff to locate the appropriate district personnel when problems occurred.  To remedy this situation, each district in the Program must complete an application form and provide the County EOC with a minimum of three designated District Contacts, with complete contact information, so we have the ability to communicate with knowledgeable district personnel during a crisis.  Some districts and operators have provided more than three.  The development of this network is very important.  Though a seemingly easy thing to do, it is very important— Judge Hebert notes “it is imperative.  We have to bring our utility districts into our management system so we can help them.” 

NIMS Training:   As the districts began to understand that they were responders; it was then necessary to make sure that they learned how to participate as part of the County’s emergency management team.  As Judge Hebert noted at the AWBD State Conference, “in order to communicate and that things move smoothly in Fort Bend County, we need you to understand and to comply with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), because everything we do functions under NIMS.  It is not classified; information is on the web.”  In this first year, the condition was that three employees from each operating company or each individual district complete four NIMS on-line training courses (100, 200, 700 and 800).  Between December 2008 and April 2009, districts had their key employees complete the on-line training.

County Emergency Operations 101:  Another requirement is for each district to send employees to a 2 ½ training session at the Fort Bend County EOC.  During this session, attendees learn key definitions; the difference between crisis management and consequence management; the emergency response realities for municipal utility districts; the purpose and objectives of the County EOC; and the framework for State of Texas Emergency Management.  A discussion on resource management, including pre-positioned contracts and the process for requesting resources is also provided in summary form.  Finally, the attendees are given a checklist of emergency preparation questions to use to assess their own operations.  Three sessions were conducted, two in April 2009 and one in June 2009.  This training provided the districts with on-site training with EOC staff; they got to learn how we work.  The briefing was well-received by the participants.  Ken Love of Municipal District Services LLC wrote to EOC with “thanks for the tour of the EOC; it was well done and informative.”

Application for MUD Readiness Program:   Though this sounds like merely an administrative matter, it is a critical component of the voluntary program.  It is critical because it provides valuable information that the County does not usually have access to or is very difficult to find on-line.  The application provides information about the firm or district; authorized contacts; a listing of the service areas covered (with an operating firm, this would be multiple districts); and hard copies of the required completion certificates for each on-line FEMA course completed by key contacts.  The submittal of the application provides an opportunity for enhanced discussion between the entity and the County EOC.  In future years, it is hoped that additional information will be shared, such as listings of key infrastructure; GIS maps; plans; and other items that will facilitate better response during an emergency situation.

Annual Preparation Meeting:  Another requirement is for district key personnel to attend an Annual Hurricane Preparation Meeting.  This year the meeting was held in July; however, in the future, it is hoped to that this meeting will be held in late May or early June.  This is a two hour meeting that is kicked off by the County Judge; followed by a presentation by a National Weather Service representative who discusses the upcoming hurricane season; followed by discussion about communications and interoperability issues (specifics about how districts will communicate with the EOC during a crisis); followed by specific information about the 213 RR resource request process and an overview of WebEOC crisis information system software.  County Judge Hebert notes that “we have the annual meeting at the County EOC to review utility district preparedness; the goal being to integrated utility districts into the overall County emergency management process.”

District Representation in the EOC:  The key action being taken to ensure improved communication between emergency management personnel and utility district operators is to include utility district representation in the County EOC.  Judge Hebert made his wishes clearly known after Hurricane Ike:  “Effective with the 2009 Hurricane Season, there will be a desk in the Fort Bend County EOC dedicated to water utilities.”  County EOC staff is working with the districts and operators to select individuals who will work the Utilities Desk during activations.  This desk will be strategically located next to the County’s Road & Bridge desk and will be staffed by individuals knowledgeable with the tasks that they have to carry out.  The selected individuals will know how to “talk the language of water and wastewater,” and the EOC will benefit by having a continuous liaison with the utility districts especially if we have a storm making landfall.  Certain changes are being made to the Fort Bend County EOC to accommodate the addition of this new Utilities Desk.

As noted above, Fort Bend County has significantly addressed a “lesson learned” from Hurricane Ike.  In quick decisive fashion, County Judge Hebert, and the staff of the Office of Emergency Management, settled on a solution to address the identified gap.  Diligent work over about an eight month period has resulted in the development of a Municipal Utility District Readiness program which will ensure a more coordinated and effective response to water district emergencies in Fort Bend County. 

At this time, three water district operating companies have been recognized at the Commissioners Court.  Those firms include Southwest Water, MDS, and Severn Trent.  Another operating company hopes to complete the requirements of the voluntary program in August.    Approximately 60% of the County’s utility districts are now covered by a NIMS Compliant First Responder.

County Municipal Utility Districts Get Ready for 2009 Hurricane Season – Part I

31 07 2009

During 2008, Fort Bend County was impacted by Hurricane Ike.  Not impacted like Galveston or Chambers counties, but there was damage:  20 homes destroyed; 7,000 homes damaged; and 130,000 homes lost power, many for a period of weeks; and more than 750,000 cubic yards of debris to remove.  However, a very significant issue was discovered during the after action review following the storm.

Fort Bend County is generally defined as a “pass-through” County, though some parts of the County are as close as 30 miles from the Gulf Coast.  Our hurricane plans are based on the “shelter in place” concept.  We expect our residents to hunker down; stay off the roads; prepare themselves with food and water; and stay in their homes.  But, unlike coastal counties where residents flee and there is no real demand for utility service; the opposite is true in Fort Bend County.  Since we want our residents to stay in their homes, there is demand for water and sewer service and there is pressure on utilities to deliver their service as soon as the storm has passed.

In Fort Bend County, there are over 120 Municipal Utility Districts that are responsible for providing water and sewer service.  Power outages during Ike caused a myriad of problems because of the lack of electricity, causing sewage overflows on streets and non-potable water problems.  As Fort Bend County recovered from Hurricane Ike, needs assessments and After Action Reviews demonstrated that the County needeed improved communication between emergency management personnel and utility district operators and their boards of directors.  County Judge Robert Hebert stated the situation clearly at the Winter Conference of the Association of Water Board Directors when he stated:  “Fort Bend County has a very sophisticated emergency management system that runs from the State down to the Counties to the Cities to the Hospitals to the Schools.  During Ike, it did not run down to the Municipal Utility Districts.  It will in Fort Bend County during 2009 when we get to the Hurricane Season.”

It should be noted that Judge Hebert is not just any County Judge when it comes to matters related to water and sewer operations.  No county judge in Texas -or anywhere else for that matter -understands the role of municipal utility districts better than Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert.  Such districts were his business for many years; he was the founder of ECO Resources, now Southwest Water Company, one of the leading water operating firms in Texas history. He speaks water districts. And, as noted above, he directed the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management to develop a comprehensive plan to get districts involved in county emergency planning.

In quick order, OEM staff developed the Fort Bend County Municipal Utility District Readiness Program.  The program is voluntary, but of course strongly encouraged.  Those that complete the requirements of the voluntary program area are cited as “NIMS Compliant First Responders.” They are provided a certificate and recognized at a meeting of the Commissioners Court.  Those that earn a certificate have earned the distinction by taking actions to become an integral part of the County’s emergency management network.

The program involves a series of actions to be taken by districts to make them more prepared for the 2009 Hurricane Season; improve communication between such districts and emergency management staff at the County and municipal level; and truly begin to make districts responsible for emergency management activities at its level of government. 

In my next blog entry, I will discuss the specifics of the Fort Bend County MUD Readiness Program.