It is our goal to protect Houston's citizens every day and we are achieving that goal," says Dennis Storemski, director of the Houston (Texas) Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Unfortunately, the very real risk for terrorism incidents and natural disasters requires agencies to be ever-vigilant in their readiness and preparation. In a city such as Houston, population 2 million, opportunities for terrorism and natural disaster abound.
"The city of Houston includes every one of the 17 categories of threat targets designated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)," explains Lt. Gary Scheibe of the Houston Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Nearly every sector of the economy also is represented in this sprawling city. Petrochemical production, natural gas, oil, banking, agriculture, cargo handling, health care, universities, transportation centers, stadiums, aeronautics, military installations and nuclear facilities represent the most visible potential targets. Perhaps though, the most talked about threat to the Houston area is the possible disruption of the flow of refined petroleum products for which there are only a few weeks reserve.
For Houston's first responders, whether the incident is caused by terrorism, accident or natural disaster does not change their immediate goals — to save lives and stabilize the environment. That could mean putting out a fire, containing a hazmat spill, or conducting a rescue or evacuation. In a city of this size, even an overturned 18-wheeler on Interstate 10 at rush hour could affect tens of thousands of commuters.
But Houston's preparedness is paying off. A recent transformer fire at a CenterPoint Energy power transmission facility left 17,000 customers without power for a short time. The event might have resulted in a carefully orchestrated response drill, but for this prepared city, it was business as usual. Witnesses first reported hearing an explosion, but it was not an act of terrorism, just an accident. The incident occurred near a major traffic artery, which was temporarily shut down. There was a release of oil-based coolant used at the facility that was quickly identified and contained. No injuries were reported. The event was broadcast on national news, but was a non-issue by the next day.
To maintain this level of preparation, DHS has designated Houston a "Tier One" city, which means more funding is allocated to the city, but the funds must protect more people. Designed to use funding appropriately and effectively, UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative) grant money is used to secure technology that serves the city every day. The following looks at some of the technology UASI grant funds have allowed Houston to acquire.Information "fusion centers"
Effective terrorism prevention, protection, preparedness, response and recovery efforts begin with timely and accurate information about who the enemies are, where they operate, how they are supported, what targets they intend to attack, and the method of attack they intend to use. To aid in this information dissemination, a number of cities, including Houston, have created information "fusion centers" to serve as a hub for intrastate (or intra-regional) efforts to collect, analyze, disseminate and use terrorism-related information.
Houston's new fusion center, installed at the Houston Emergency Center, was created through a $1 million UASI grant. And, it is a model of efficiency in gathering and disseminating intelligence.
The view from the plexiglass-walled fusion center is impressive. It overlooks Houston's massive 911 combined dispatch center, which handles more than 1 million calls per year in a facility equipped with hundreds of workstations and large overhead screens.