Wildfire Response ReCap
So many positive actions for preparedness and response have taken place since the Labor Day and Pinnacle Fires of 2011 that it is almost impossible to capture them all. But, as we move into the one?year anniversary of the Labor Day Fires, I would like to share a summary re?cap of accomplishments and on?going efforts.
Enhanced early communications for both responders and the public are now in place. These include improved, early communications between responders, resulting in prompt mobilization of joint efforts among multiple agencies. These agencies will work together more efficiently and effectively, using a strengthened incident command structure.
The Commissioners Court has hired a public information officer (PIO) for its Emergency Services departments (STAR Flight, EMS, Fire Marshal’s office, Office of Emergency Management, Wireless Communications and Medical Examiner’s Office). With the new PIO, television reporters, radio stations and newspapers will have 24? hour access to Emergency Services communications. In addition, each Emergency Service District has an appointed PIO for emergencies. The County departments of Transportation and Natural Resources and Health and Human Services are also in the PIO family.
Social media communications via Facebook and Twitter have been implemented for quick access to up?to?date information during events. Websites for Travis County departments, Emergency Services Districts and City of Austin now have a full complement of resource materials, including social media access, individual and community preparedness guidelines and how?to information, as well as links to other related websites.
Travis County TV Channel 17 is now part of the program for getting news to the public in both an educational capacity and during emergencies.
The Joint County/City Wildfire Task Force created and distributed the “Ready, Set, Go!” brochures and cards that show the public how to prepare for wildfires. This, along with information and implementation assistance for the Fire Wise Community program, is available through all agencies participating in the Task Force. Indeed, since Labor Day of
Last Year, Travis County has gone from 6 to 11 “Fire Wise” certified communities with several more coming onboard soon.
Virtually all jurisdictions and many neighborhoods have moved forward in hazard mitigation. Major assessments of high?risk areas have taken place and areas continue to be evaluated and prioritized. The purchase of additional equipment for brush removal, grant applications for additional mitigation funding, creation of partnerships between agencies and neighborhoods are examples of efforts made and ongoing.
Travis County and the City of Austin are looking at jointly funding a Countywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan along with other joint efforts to improve preparedness and response.
Multiple agency responders have purchased new equipment. Travis County is considering purchasing a larger “firefighting” helicopter that is dedicated to the task of firefighting, and the City of Austin recently purchased another law enforcement helicopter that has firefighting capabilities. We all remember that support equipment from the State and Feds was not readily available when most needed last year.
STAR Flight now provides GPS tracking of fire lines for responders on the ground to improve response in areas difficult to access. They also have two portable “pumpkins” that hold a large amount of water for firefighting helicopters, increasing the number of water drops on fires and decreasing the distance helicopters must travel to get water. The Capitol Area Fire Chiefs Association provides STAR Flight with an additional pumpkin.
Danny Hobby, Travis County Executive Manager for Emergency Services, recently enumerated recommended statutory adjustments for better wildfire protection to an interim hearing of the Legislature’s House County Affairs Committee. Key points included:
. (1) Require new subdivision developments to provide safe and appropriate ingress/egress for both residents and emergency service vehicles.
. (2) Require developers to work with local authorities, including emergency providers, to set aside land for fire stations, police substations and EMS housing. Size of development and anticipated populations would dictate one or all three of these needs. (Emergency response facilities needed to serve new growth are hampered by having to use taxpayer dollars to pay market prices for land for these facilities.)
. (3) Require new subdivisions to have sufficient water for both residents’ use and fire response.
. (4) Require local authorities to work together to address area resident needs during annexation – considering ways to mitigate the impact of annexation for residents who are located near annexed property and left without emergency service or reduced emergency service by the loss of tax revenues.
. (5) Require, as a condition of municipal incorporation, proof that adequate police, fire and EMS services will be provided.
. (6) Require the distribution of all dedicated 9?1?1 Funds for the emergency purposes for which they were intended. Current holding of these funds to assist in the balance of the State budget robs many local 9?1?1 jurisdictions of funding necessary for maintenance and improvement of emergency service delivery.
We have come a long way since the wildfires of 2011. We have begun to create a culture of awareness and preparedness that will serve us better the next time we smell that fearful smoke. I applaud ALL who have worked so hard to get us where we are today, in one short year.
Commissioner Karen Huber Travis County Precinct 3