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.”

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Fort Bend County Regional SWAT Obtains New Vehicle

5 02 2012

The following item is an article that was published online by yoursugarlandnews.com on February 2, 2012.  It provides good information about an effort over the last two years to build a Fort Bend County team of law enforcement officers capable of responding to high-risk situations.  It is important to note that the “Fort Bend County team” is a multi-agency collaborative effort involving the cities of Missouri City, Rosenberg, Stafford, Sugar Land and the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office.  Danny Jan, Captain in the Sheriff’s Office, has been integral part in facilitating meetings and getting all the agencies to come together to form the team.  The Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management has played a key role in the development of the grant applications required to fund the team’s formation.  By using Urban Area Securities Initiative (UASI) monies, the Fort Bend County Regional SWAT effort is able to be deployed anywhere in the five-county Houston Urban Area should a need arise.  The article below provides more information about the team and the new vehicle it has just recently received:

Leaders of the Fort Bend Regional SWAT Team are shown with the team's new Bearcat. They include, from the left, Capt. Scott Soland, Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office and West Division Commander; Sgt. Wayne Coleman, Sugar Land Police Department, East Division; Sgt. Kurt Maxheimer, Missouri City Police Department, East Division; Sgt. Brian Baker, Rosenberg Police Department, West Division; Sgt. Patrick Herman, Stafford Police Department; Capt. James Davis, Sugar Land Police Department and East Division Commander; and Sgt. Reggie Powell, Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office, West Division.

Fort Bend County’s new tactical, armored response and rescue vehicle is expected to enhance the safety of SWAT officers throughout the region.

Known simply as the Bearcat, the newly realigned Fort Bend Regional SWAT Team will utilize the vehicle for deployments throughout the county. The Bearcat, which carries up to 10 people, can traverse a variety of terrain. The vehicle has been utilized by police for barricaded situations, high-risk warrants, active shooters, dignitary transport and more. The Bearcat has proven itself in the field as an invaluable resource in high-risk situations, most recently in Tyler, Texas, where a SWAT team last year approached a kidnapping and murder suspect who was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Excerpts from a PoliceOne.com article follow:

The officers were investigating the house of Howard Granger, a suspect in the murder of Benjamin Gill Clements – the son of a former Texas governor. The suspect fired 35 rounds at the Bearcat before a sniper brought him down.  “It allowed officers to approach the residence safely and protected them under heavy fire from a very high-powered rifle,” said Tyler PD SWAT Commander Rusty Jacks, noting the vehicle saved lives and prevented injury to SWAT officers.

Fort Bend County purchased its Bearcat with an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Homeland Security Grant Program.  According to FEMA, the UASI Program provides funding to address the unique planning, organization, equipment, training and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas and assists them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism. Per the 9/11 Act, states are required to ensure that at least 25 percent of UASI appropriated funds are dedicated towards law enforcement terrorism prevention activities.

The Fort Bend Regional SWAT team is comprised of an east division staffed by the Missouri City, Sugar Land and Stafford Police Departments and a west division comprised of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office and the Rosenberg Police Department.  The effort through the five agencies here is also a component of a higher security push in the Greater Houston area with other law enforcement agencies.

The objective of the regional team is to:  1) allow for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure; 2) enable a coordinated response among various jurisdictions; and 3) establish common processes for planning and managing resources.

The acquisition of the new Bearcat is one example that illustrates a year-long effort by law enforcement agencies throughout the county to collaborate more closely on regional partnerships, especially in the area of SWAT response.