In event of emergency, The Woodlands is fully prepared on several levels
Anyone would be forgiven for mistaking The Woodlands Township Emergency Operations Center with mission control at NASA.
Inside the Operations Center, televisions are mounted on the beige walls everywhere the eye falls, and the whole southern wall of the room is obscured by six monitors that, in a time of crisis, are used to help control how officials respond in the community.
Jason Washington, The Woodlands Fire Department battalion chief of emergency preparations, said numerous governmental agencies, including the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and The Woodlands Fire Department, receive guidance from workers within the center as officials from the the agencies respond to major emergencies within the community.
“We’ll come in here,” Washington said. “And we can basically run major incidents inside The Woodlands.”
The trick to emergency preparedness on a township level, Washington said, is expecting the unexpected. And, in the case of a major storm like Hurricane Harvey, monitoring as many weather and law enforcement web sites as possible.
“We know what’s coming before it gets here,” Washington said.
In coordination with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the response team has created contingency plans for dozens of possible events in the community, including, fuel shortages, civil disruptions, tornadoes and terrorist attacks.
Montgomery sheriff’s Lt. Scott Spencer said in response to potential threats, Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson created the Homeland Security Division within the department shortly after taking office.
The division, which encompasses the SWAT team, the K9 division, the Special Response Group and the Crisis Negotiation Team, is responsible for preparing and training officers for major events and coordinating active shooter trainings in the county.
“Risk assessments are done on the local, state and national level when we have events,” Spencer said. “Through our partnerships with the state and federal law enforcement agencies, we believe we have the information and resources to adequately plan for a major event.”
The township’s hurricane emergency response plan, for example, is broken down into phases, with hour-by-hour check-ins starting 120 hours out from the expected landfall of a potential hurricane. As the phases of the emergency plan progress, the hour intervals begin to shorten to lesser time windows, with check-ins and preparations happening increasingly regularly, Washington said.
The plan includes provisions for everything from notifying care homes of the coming storm to stocking up on food supplies for the essential personnel housed in the station throughout the crisis
“There are probably 10 to 20 people in this room and you’re trying to do a thousand things at one time,” Washington said.
The center was manned non-stop as Harvey approached the Texas coast, and is used throughout the year during major community events.
“We got very lucky in Harvey,” Washington said. “We were as prepared as you can be — you don’t ever really prepare for a storm like that.”
Although The Woodlands is located relatively close to the coast, hurricanes are far from the only emergency the township prepares for.
“When you’re trying to prepare for any disaster, it’s the unknown,” Washington said. “You have to be able to adapt and overcome.”
In addition to the nine fire trucks used by the Township to rescue residents trapped in floodwaters, the fire department purchased two high-water rescue vehicles and two more boats, bringing the small marine fleet to six.
Spencer said intra-agency coordination usually falls to the EOC once an event is organized.
Washington said the most important thing for residents to remember is to prepare ahead of time, be aware of the changing conditions around them and listen closely to the advisories from township officials.
“If the fire department or the township says, ‘It’s time to leave,’ heed that warning,” Washington said. “If we’re telling you to leave, it’s for a reason, because we know it’s going to be bad.”
Almost a year on from one of the worst natural disasters the Texas Gulf Coast has seen, it’s business as usual for the emergency response team, who undergo special trainings throughout the year and are constantly monitoring emerging situations as well as overseeing recovery in the community, Washington said.
“It takes everything that we do to come together and get ready and recover and get ready for the next one,” he said. “There will definitely be a next one — I just don’t know when.”