Disaster response center gets major upgrade


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and Photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE


Posted on November 19, 2013 at 7:40 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 19 at 10:53 PM

AUSTIN -- Deep under the Texas Department of Public Safety's Austin headquarters lies a portal right out of the atomic age.

"Right now we're 30 feet below ground," said Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) Chief Nim Kidd. "We're in a concrete box sitting on giant springs inside another concrete box. And the whole idea was this thing is designed so that with the impact of a bomb, the shaking would not destroy this facility."

Guided by the state's top emergency management official, KVUE's cameras took a first look inside the State Operations Center (SOC) following two years of extensive renovations and upgrades. Housed in an underground bunker built in the 1950s to withstand a 10-megaton nuclear blast over downtown Austin, the SOC is the central nervous system of the state's emergency response apparatus.

The busiest part of the SOC most days is a room called "The Bubble," where TDEM staff are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, monitoring communications channels and weather conditions for signs of trouble. Staff in the Bubble are linked with emergency offices across the state via the National and Texas Alert Warning Systems (NAWS, TAWS), telephone-based systems which function like open radio channels for emergency updates.

Staff inside the Bubble also actively monitor social media for breaking information, often following up leads with local and regional authorities in order to verify information and determine whether an emergency situation is unfolding.

"The social media thing has really changed a lot in using TweetDeck, and some of the other platforms that are out there to monitor the keywords, so that we can focus in on where events are happening in Texas," explained Kidd.

The SOC coordinates 30 disaster districts across the state, each of which is chaired by a Texas Highway Patrol officer and assisted by a district coordinator on the TDEM staff. Requests for assistance from local governments go first to the district committee chair, who can direct nearby resources to help or convey the request to regional or state authorities via the SOC. Requests are relayed and tracked through WebEOC, an online interface for realtime crisis information management.

"We lead the nation in the number of major disaster declarations over any other state," said Kidd. "As we're standing here today, there are several events that we're monitoring across the state. From fires down in the Kingsville area to the pipeline explosion that happened last week, to closing up monitoring the F1 event and the San Antonio Rock and Roll Marathon. There's always something going on in Texas we're watching for."

Activity inside the SOC corresponds to four operational levels. Level Four is a baseline level of awareness with no major incidents. An event significant enough to require the center's focus becomes a Level Three event. Level Two events are those which require the assistance of agencies outside TDEM, representatives of which are mobilized and report to the SOC's sprawling operations floor. Ongoing events are typically broken into 12-hour periods, and events which require multiple agencies working over multiple operational periods become Level One events.

"Level one is the biggest event that we have. You're going to think of [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita and Ike," said Kidd. Recent Level Two events include the Halloween floods in Austin and the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West.

The renovations have more than doubled the seating inside the SOC, bringing the total number up to 112 from 42. Two extra conference rooms, for a total of four, offer space for breakout meetings during disaster events. Programmable smart boards and LCD displays line the walls, enabling staff to monitor several different information sources at once.

During a disaster event, staff from dozens of state agencies man rows of tables. Each staff member is distinguished by a colored vest. For example, requests for resources would typically be field by a logistics staffer in a yellow vest. If the resource is readily available, it can be dispatched to where it's needed. If a resource needs purchasing, it's handed off to a finance staffer, identified by a green vest. Procured resources would then be written into the operational strategy by planning staff in blue vests, before being handed off to operations staff in red vests for deployment.

"We missed the collaborative nature of what happens of how we come together and solve problems, and that's why you see these tables facing each other. The people at the table get to work together," said Kidd. "So you have a multijurisdictional, multidisciplined approach to problem solving, and that is probably the single biggest impact that we've seen in improving the speed of our response and the capacity of our response."

High-level policy decisions would be made in a new high-tech teleconference room next door. In a disaster situation, the state's top officials would gather around the room's large conference table to address the larger picture.

"When we talk about what parts of the state get an evacuation, where contraflow takes place," said Kidd. "Are we going to make the decision to contraflow? That decision is made in here."

Those decisions will be communicated from a new media room with a full view of the operations. Unlike in the past, when press conferences were either held in a separate facility or on the busy operations floor itself, future press conferences will be conducted in a separate room looking onto the operations floor.

"Having the elected and appointed officials, the media to get that message out and a prepared community are what makes a stable platform for us to rest the program on. Any one of those pieces falls out, and the result is disastrous," said Kidd. "Nothing out there will be disturbed by what we're doing in here, so there is no lapse in time or lapse in response. We have got to keep operations going on in there for the citizens of Texas, and we've got to use the media to get our message out and share that in realtime."

In addition its bunker home, TDEM has a "SOC in a box" ready to deploy and establish a command center anywhere in the field. The addition of technology such as smartphones, laptops, the internet and social media are making response times quicker and situational command more mobile. Yet too much reliance on technology could breed its own set of dangers, and Kidd says something as simple as memorizing the actual phone numbers of family members could mean a world of difference in an emergency.

"What would happen if you don't have access to it anymore?" asked Kidd. "And do we remember the stuff that we learned in elementary school about preparedness? About having a home evacuation plan? About changing the batteries in your smoke detectors? About where to meet friends and family? And we've got to go back to those very simple processes. If we're solid on those simple processes and we employ our technology and social media appropriately, nobody will be able to beat us ever."