HOMELAND SECURITY: All day, every day

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.

At the center, analysts review and record data, and maintain records on suspicious activity each day. That information, along with maps, building configurations and traffic movement, is made available to every city, state and federal agency responding to an incident. Scheibe notes the fusion center operates daily and can gear up to full capacity in about an hour when necessary.

Protecting the land and the sea

As the world's 10th largest seaport, Houston handles more foreign waterborne tonnage than any other U.S. port. The 52-mile Houston Ship Channel, serving the nation's fourth largest city, contains the world's second largest petrochemical complex. Along the length of waterway winding from Galveston to within 8 miles of downtown Houston, exist public and private entities moving all classes of cargo including petroleum, liquid natural gas, grain, industrial products, chemicals, food, textiles, electronics and automotive products. Ninety-five percent of all container cargo that moves through Texas is handled at this port's container terminal. All major rail and trucking lines converge at the port to transport goods to more than 30 million people living within 500 miles of Houston. A new container terminal and passenger cruise ship terminal are being built, which will nearly triple the capacity of both.

Providing security from terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters is a daunting task in this target-rich environment. One significant change since the September 11 attacks has been in information sharing between port-based agencies.

The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the vessels entering the channel. They check the ship's registry and conduct safety inspections. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is responsible for the contents of the cargo. They match manifests with visual confirmation. The Port of Houston Authority responds to all waterborne and waterfront emergencies. This includes fires, explosions and any incident that would interfere with the flow of ship channel traffic. It also maintains its fireboats and land-based stations for an immediate 24/7 response, beginning from the Turning Basin to the Bayport Terminal.

"Before 9/11, each agency was concerned with our own security within the port — there wasn't much sharing of information," says Wade Battles, managing director of the Port of Houston Authority. "In fact, most of it was kept secret from other entities. Now we realize what happens next door could have significant consequences on all of us, so sharing intelligence has become necessary and is welcome."

According to Battles, the Port of Houston has always been safe; but considering the heightened threat levels since 9/11, he has taken a three-step approach to enhancing and maintaining security at a higher level. "First we hardened the perimeter; we then increased intelligence and information sharing, and finally we strengthened our relationships with law enforcement in the surrounding communities to achieve appropriate responses to threats and incidents," he explains.

Hardening the perimeter meant installing additional physical barriers including limiting vehicle access to certain parts of the port. Pressure-sensitive fencing, concrete barricades and motion detectors are just some of the security devices that have been added. Port vehicle entrances also are monitored with cameras, identification is checked and license plate numbers are recorded.

Sharing information and intelligence reports about suspicious activity in and around the port, including access roads, bridges and tunnels, are standard procedures. Background checks for personnel and companies delivering goods to the port also occur.

Finally, regular meetings are held to discuss security with all public and private interests along the channel. The discussions are essential in developing response, shutdown and recovery procedures with first responders should an incident occur. Additionally, drills are conducted to ensure the coordination of all emergency personnel.

Designated as eligible for significant funding from DHS Port Security Grants, the Port of Houston developed a strategic partnership, which took an act of the Texas legislature to achieve.

Hailed as a model for other ports around the country, House Bill 3011, authored by Rep. Wayne Smith, creates a Ship Channel Security District. The bill, passed by the Texas House and Senate, and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, went into effect June 20. Creating a separate security district allows both public and private interests along the channel to cooperate in applying for funding as a unique entity. The first round of funding is expected to bring more than $30 million to enhance security on the waterway.

The district will be governed by commissioners representing industry, port operations and municipal governments along the channel with funds being administered by Harris County. The new Ship Channel Security District also will allow authorities to install additional surveillance and communications equipment.

Purchases of sonar devices and additional surveillance cameras along the channel also are expected with the first round of DHS Port Security Grant funding. The operation and maintenance of the equipment is provided by the Ship Channel Security District.

Technology helps get the job done

According to Capt. John Anderson of the Houston Police Department's Homeland Security Division, the spending of any grant dollars is carefully coordinated with Mayor Bill White's office to most effectively meet the city's needs.

"We have to be able to respond effectively to any emergency, and that means having equipment we use every day, not just for major disasters," Anderson says. "Local police and fire services respond daily to emergencies and crisis situations. The major change for first responders today has been the improvement in emergency response efforts through better coordination, integration and interoperability between not only police and fire services, but also other local, state and federal agencies as well as with the private sector."

Response to natural disasters, terrorist events and other emergencies can require specialized equipment. To meet those needs, the city has purchased dedicated equipment using UASI grants.

And $1.8 million in Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program (LETPP) Funding supplied the Houston PD with a helicopter and eight bomb squad rapid response vehicles.

Slightly more than $9.5 million over the last seven rounds of UASI grants allowed the Houston PD to purchase mobile and portable computers ($4.9 million) and personal protective equipment for 5,000 police officers ($1.2 million). The remaining portion allocated for terrorism prevention was used to purchase a mobile command post, mobile video camera surveillance truck, bomb squad and SWAT mobile command posts, waterway threat prevention (boats and dive equipment), crime scene recovery equipment, and SWAT team support.

Additionally, a new Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system, designed by Northrop Grumman, has been added to Houston's combined dispatch center. This AVL system is the second-largest of its kind in the country. Jill Arrasmith, manager of strategic initiatives for Northrop Grumman, says Houston's combined 911 center utilizes the same technology as Chicago, which is the largest combined police/fire/EMS consolidated dispatch center in the United States.

Installed just a few weeks ago at a cost of $1.2 million, Houston's CAD AVL system has no limit to the number of vehicles it can manage with AVL, although it is expected to average 2,500 vehicles at one time.

"One unique aspect of Houston's installation is that the system will be used every day, integrated with CAD technology already in place," Arrasmith says. "It also can be used for overall views of the city's resources during a major disaster."

Houston's AVL allows for recording vehicles' movements, and following a particular vehicle en route to a location. It allows command personnel to make instant decisions about allocating equipment and personnel, as well as knowing exactly where backup units are.

Each individual workstation at the dispatch center can view vehicle locations using the new application, as do the mobile field units themselves. Command personnel can view first responder resources on a variety of portable devices.

Arrasmith says similar applications are used by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and the Chicago and New York City fire departments.

The future of communications

Storemski says the biggest challenge in Houston now, as in many large cities, is complying with federal guidelines for interoperable communications systems. "We have published a Request For Information (RFI) to build a new radio system, converting from the present UHF to the 700 to 800 MHz range," he says. "It could cost more than $100 million to develop."

Complicating issues is the misconception that first responders can't talk to each other when necessary. That simply isn't true, says Storemski. "We employ gateways when necessary and we are able to communicate effectively," he says. "Frankly, there are times when it is not desirable for everyone to be talking and listening. We handle each situation separately, and if necessary, we can all communicate at the same time. Command staff is always in communication with each other."

Furthermore, rural areas have different needs than urban centers. "What works here in Houston may not work well at all outside the city — one size does not fit all," Storemski says. "The optimum level of radio interoperability, according to the DHS SafeCom project, is achieved by shared systems. We will probably never reach that level of interoperability in the state of Texas given the fact that so many jurisdictions use VHF and UHF frequencies, nor is it necessary. It is however practical and feasible regionally within the state."

Recently, Houston participated in a mandatory communications exercise addressing redundancy and interoperability. "The exercise was successful, and we were able to perform all the required operations in the allotted time," he continues.

On a more practical note, Storemski wishes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would require all vendors to make their radio equipment interoperable. "It used to be that you could buy anyone's radio equipment and talk on it," he says. "Now it seems to be vendor specific, and that locks you into subsequent purchases from the same vendor, even though their cost may be higher than others. P25 (the P25 suite of standards involves digital Land Mobile Radio (LMR) services for public safety entities) almost gets you there, but not quite."

More changes to come

In September 2005, Houston's hotels were at maximum capacity from Hurricane Katrina's evacuees, when three weeks later, Hurricane Rita, another Category 5 storm, appeared headed directly for the Houston Ship Channel.

Although a full-scale evacuation of Houston was not indicated, many residents, terrified over the catastrophic aftermath of Katrina, chose to leave town. What transpired in approximately 36 hours was a nearly complete evacuation of Houston's metro area.

"I suspect that too many people left the city not because they feared the danger associated with the hurricane, but because they did not want to deal with the inconvenience of power outages and other consequences associated with the aftermath of a hurricane," says Storemski.

Houston is 50 miles inland so Galveston and other affected coastal areas must have the opportunity to evacuate first. Residents living inland in areas not subject to the storm surge are expected to make their own decision to evacuate. "Certainly, if one's home or dwelling is not capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds, they need to move to a more secure structure," says Storemski. "But that does not necessarily mean leaving town."

New technology is on the way to reduce some of the anxiety and fear encountered in these situations. "We purchased new software to more accurately predict wind speeds in each zip code area of the city," Storemski explains. "Along with meteorologists, we will be able to deliver more detailed information to Houston residents so they will be able to make more informed decisions."

As the fourth largest metro area in the nation with the 10th largest seaport, Houston has long been on the frontlines of protecting the nation's economic infrastructure. The efforts to create a fusion center, beef up port security, add communications interoperability and enhance first response technology enables the city to keep its citizens safe from disaster — all day, every day.

Linda Spagnoli is a law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data sharing, emergency communications, media relations and funding. Spagnoli maintains her position as director of communications for Code Amber, the largest Internet distribution of Amber Alerts. She may be reached at ljspagnoli@aol.com.

Loading