From tornadoes to terror attacks, Wilco Emergency Management plays important role

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Disasters have no regular schedules, so neither does Williamson County’s Emergency Management program. Coordinator Jarred Thomas gets to work at 7 a.m., but after that, “there is no typical day.” (Waylon Cunningham Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

GEORGETOWN — When the phone rang after midnight, Jarred Thomas knew better than to ignore it. Two tornadoes had just hit Thrall, and as Williamson County’s Emergency Management Coordinator, he had a duty to make sure the first responders had what they needed to do their jobs.

Once he arrived, he met with the fire chief and other responders. His co-worker from the department soon joined him, and together with the National Weather Service, they went out knocking door-to-door, talking to residents, and assessing the damage to homes, power lines and roads.

He and his co-worker didn’t leave until 5 p.m. the next day.

That day in February was unusual, says Thomas, but then again, “there is no typical day.” In this kind of job, the only consistent item on the schedule is arriving at the office around 7 a.m.

Last week he helped host a planning workshop with dozens of local healthcare providers, attended a meeting with representatives for the 10-county Austin metropolitan area, and drove the department’s command truck up to Ohio for repairs.

Next week, the department will hold a workshop on response planning software, he’ll brief representatives from the Lower Brushy Creek district about their dam, and he’ll attend Commissioners Court. But again, “if that phone were to ring, everything planned could change.”

He said he hasn’t had a day off in 12 days — but again, that’s not necessarily typical.

Following an interview with The Independent at the new Williamson County Emergency Management Operations Center in Georgetown, he was scheduled to meet with Georgetown officials to start a training curriculum

He works at the Operations Center with two other full-time employees and one grant-funded worker.

Down the hall from his office, dispatchers in one room respond to 9-1-1 calls from Liberty Hill and other towns in the county without their own dispatch service.

Across the hall, the break room resembles a call center, and not unintentionally. It doubles as an emergency information hotline.

Thomas explains that in the event of a disaster, such as a bus crash on the interstate, public information officers from the region could gather here to coordinate consistent messaging and take calls from the public.

In fact, every room in this building constructed in 2013 has a double or triple function. But just as call centers are not the only function of the building, emergency plans are not Thomas’ only role. In both cases, they take on a dizzying array of tasks.

In his own office, a desk covered in scattered maps and reports sits by a small bookcase that showcases dozens of model vintage fire trucks. But the duties of an Emergency Management Coordinator only allow a certain amount of time here.

Most of the day is spent out meeting with local, regional and state officials, his counterparts, the public, and “anyone who has a stake in Emergency Management.”

He says that last week he even came to Liberty Hill, where he had a “really good talk” with City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann.

The role of the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator in disaster situations is crucial — though admittedly tricky to describe quickly. Thomas actually has a video on file that uses cartoons to illustrate it.

It explains that when disaster strikes, such as a tornado, flood, or terroristic attack, the official response can be thought of as having three layers.

On the ground, responders from local agencies physically move in to offer aid, relief, or other actions that need to be taken.

An executive level above them is responsible for ultimately directing that effort. These are the people who draft the strategies to be carried out.

Between those two layers is emergency management.

They assess the situation on the ground, communicate between the layers above and below, and make sure everyone has what they need to fulfill their mission.

The emergency plan at their level “outlines the who, what, when, where, how and why kind of things,” says Thomas, “but it doesn’t get to how we’re gonna put the fire out. That’s where the Fire Department comes in.”

Williamson County’s department was created in 2008.

Before then, the responsibilities were a part of Emergency Medical Services, where Thomas himself was a paramedic and volunteer firefighter.

The program more broadly can be thought of having come out of the Cold War era, Thomas says. In every jurisdiction, a Civil Defense Coordinator was responsible for educating the public on what to do in the event of an air strike.

But much has changed since those days. In fact, the Emergency Management Thomas describes is radically different than it was even 15 years ago.

First, as the threat of nuclear annihilation waned, the responsibilities associated with nuclear preparedness transitioned to consider a broader array of disasters. Emergency Management was tied into Homeland Security. The plans became more complex, the funding requirements higher, and now education tracks and degree programs are offered in Emergency Management.

Thomas says it’s become a profession, and a rapidly changing one at that.

“Since 9/11, standards have made things more consistent across the board,” he says. “But you still have overreach, you still have overlapping, and if you’re not careful, you can have simultaneous responses, which can be detrimental to the overall response.

“It’s like an orchestra. Everyone has to play the right note at the right time,” he said.

Theoretically, every jurisdiction in Texas could have its own emergency operations plan.

Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code almost mandates as such: each chief political officer of the city or the county serves as its emergency management director responsible for all emergency related activities.

But the law also allows them to delegate the responsibilities for fulfilling their mandates to a coordinator — in Williamson County’s case, that’s Thomas.

Recently, the department has made an effort to strengthen connections with the county’s small towns by dusting off old resolutions, which specify the Emergency Management Coordinator as the administrator of emergency plans.

This helps coordination, Thomas says, and fewer plans are better than more plans.

But there’s another angle to the value in this.

When Liberty Hill delegated the responsibility for its emergency management to the county in an April 10 meeting of City Council, City Administrator Greg Boatright introduced the matter. He said he and Police Chief Maverick Campbell had been “arguing over who should have to do it. Turns out, neither one of us did.”

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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