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September 12, 2011

Emergency plans in Texas shifted post-9/11

By Brennan K. Peel
Abilene Reporter-News

ABILENE, Texas — Ten years ago today, Taylor County Commissioner Chuck Statler opened a Commissioners Court meeting with a prayer, the first time he remembers the court offering an invocation.

Today, each meeting includes an invocation, a sign that 9/11 imprinted lasting changes on American governmental processes.

There are more locked doors, required ID badges and more training required for Abilene city officials compared with a decade ago, but the changes should put the city in good stead in the event of a widespread emergency.

Jim Bryan, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is emergency management coordinator for Abilene's Homeland Security department. He was a B-1B pilot for 22 years and part of the battle staff at Dyess Air Force Base before taking the job to head the city's emergency management programs overhauled after 9/11.

"It used to be that emergency management was housed with the fire department," Bryan said. "We shifted that to under the city manager so that it umbrellas out to all city departments. It went from one department to a citywide organization."

Bryan said reshuffling of duties means communication is improved because now all departments have a role in preparing for potential emergency events. The reshuffling created the city's Homeland Security Department, which was formerly known as Emergency Management. The change was a way to enforce thatpreparednessmeansbeing ready for anything.

"Several years ago, someone sent contaminated letters to City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce," Bryan said. "It turned out they were in too small a dose to be harmful, but we were able to use that as a training exercise."

Abilene responders train for potential acts of terrorism, including school terrorism, airport terrorism or contaminated letters.

City personnel work with other Big Country cities, area hospitals and Dyess personnel on hazardous material scenarios, and officials now train to a higher level, standardized with other responders across the state.

"We're all on the same page," Bryan said. "We talk the same language. We talk simple."

The Taylor County Sheriff Department implemented an "Interoperability" project developed to enable first-responder agencies to communicate with one another in the event of a major emergency, said Sgt. John Cummins, spokesman for the department.

Taylor County Sheriff Les Bruce said his deputies improved the data collection process at traffic stops. That information is shared with federal authorities.

The sheriff's office now includes "domestic terrorism" training involving an "active shooter," which will help employees in the event of an actual terrorism event, Cummins said. Deputies now pay special attention to records discovered during search warrant raids for potential illegal aliens or those who aid illegal immigration.

Perhaps the most noticeable change is "implementation of an extensive courthouse security program, including electronically securable doors, intruder alarm system, closed circuit cameras, metal detectors and increased officer staffing at the facility," Cummins said. At the downtown federal building, which houses a post office and district courts, there are new security cameras and a locking fence behind the building installed about eight years ago, said Marsha Elliott, the deputy in charge of the U.S. district court clerk's office. Those improvements were funded by the U.S. Marshals, the agency in charge of protecting federal courts.

The bollards in front of the building and the magnetometer on the second floor already were in place, she said.

The city also implemented an alert system to inform residents of potential emergencies, including bad weather. The system - for which residents can sign up on the city's website - uses 911 and other databases to send an email, phone call or text message with critical information. The system has been used 15 or 20 times so far, primarily during flooding situations and weather warnings, Bryan said.

Abilene developed and remodeled an emergency operations center that houses radios, TVs and servers and serves as a backup 911 center.

The state has incurred most of the costs of the increased training and higher level of service, Bryan said.

"Exercises are done on the local dime, which is part of why we make them regional. But most of the costs are covered by the state," Bryan said.

Federal Homeland Security grants began flowing in 2004, and the city has applied and received some funding every year since. That will likely start to end soon, as federal coffers dry up and because most cities are now wellstocked to handle emergencies, Bryan said.

Copyright 2011 The E.W. Scripps Company

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