HOUSTON, TEXAS: Building a national model

In focusing their attention on protection of the Port of Houston, Texas, first responders in surrounding Harris County and its Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (OHSEM), hope they’re creating a model of vigilance and preparedness for the rest of the nation.

 The Port of Houston is the sixth largest port in the world and contains the largest concentration of energy infrastructure in the United States. The prevention program, called the Port of Houston Strategic Security Council (PSSC), is the first initiative of its kind—the product of a unique collaboration between government first responders and private industry.

“The public/private cooperation is what makes this endeavor so unique,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who oversees OHSEM. “Like so many inventions, where it seems there’s nothing magic about it, you end up asking yourself, ‘Why didn’t we think of it?’ Too often, the private sector looks to the government to provide what it needs or vice versa. Now we’re all working together, and we hope this project can be a cookie cutter for the rest of the nation.”

The PSSC’s strategy includes stepping up current port security with the addition of visible and unmarked law enforcement and private security patrols. In the long term, the PSSC hopes to add air patrol to the port’s land and sea patrols, which are already in place.

“By integrating law enforcement and private security, we hope to harden the port’s security by enabling information sharing and creating awareness that will help us prevent, protect, mitigate and respond to security threats,” Pat Bellamy, the chairman of PSSC, told HSToday.

The PSSC has plans for ambitious communications system changes that will allow improved interoperability and information sharing between departments. Bellamy noted that the PSSC is currently working on a common radio system allowing the integration of communications systems from Harris County and the City of Houston, as well as the private sector. The improved communications system will be compatible with traditional radios, microwave-based radios and fiber-optic networks.

“A good many agencies have gone to the new 800MHz system or have purchased other compatible systems,” noted Major Michael O’Brien, commander of homeland security with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “Aside from radio, we also have a mobile command post that allows us to talk to other systems, even if they’re not on the 800 MHz system. We also have cell phones, satellite phones and portable landline phones. During the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, we used the Harris County mobile command center as our central communications system for the search and rescue teams.”

In addition to increased patrols and improvements to communications systems, the PSSC plans to use cutting-edge technology to ensure the port’s security. These technologies include the use of intelligent video, consisting of remote controlled underwater and surface cameras, explosive screening devices, controlled access gates and locking mechanisms and container security tracking systems.

However, O’Brien declined to specify which systems the PSSC is considering or to give a timeline for purchasing them.

Sharing the cost of security

Not surprisingly, the funding required for the PSSC’s heightened security measures is quite high—the port has already received about $31 million in federal and state grants, which was used to pay for project planning, preliminary engineering and new equipment. However, the manpower necessary to carry out the day-to-day security operations is the most expensive aspect of the project, due in large part to the highly specialized nature of the work. While these expenses would normally be funded entirely by the state and federal government, private-sector businesses have taken the groundbreaking step of sharing the financial burden of the port security project.

“The PSSC was really an industry-led initiative,” O’Brien said. “Leaders in the private sector volunteered to fund and participate in the project because they wanted to do whatever was necessary to protect the area and its citizens. They put the plan into action by supporting legislature that provides a fee-based system for private industries to help pay for the operation and management of the project.”

But private-sector support doesn’t stop with money. Private industries are also participating in public forums and security-training sessions hosted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Coast Guard. Government officials are well aware of the security risks facing the 50-mile long ship channel and other publicly accessible areas, but officials need help identifying and managing vulnerabilities in the private sector.

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In yet another groundbreaking move, the PSSC teamed with educational institutions such as the University of Houston Southwest Public Safety Center, Rice University, Texas Southern University and some Houston-area high schools and community colleges to develop the next generation of port security specialists. Major O’Brien estimated that the port security project will require 75 to 100 personnel to operate on a daily basis. Finding workers with the skills necessary to plan, design, implement and maintain the port security system has been difficult—the PSSC plans to help area colleges and universities develop curriculum and degrees to meet this growing need.

Emergency response: Lessons learned

With 12,000 volunteers in the Citizen Corps, Harris County has the third largest group of emergency responders in the United States. Every few months, hundreds of volunteers work with city officials and government agencies to complete an emergency drill or exercise (the most recent of which was conducted by the FBI) involving numerous disaster scenarios, ranging from biological attacks to hurricanes and tornadoes. These drills are performed to test the effectiveness and interoperability between various government agencies.

The 2005 hurricane season looms large in the memories of Harris County officials; lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita play a major role in Harris County’s focus on emergency response. The deadly storms—which ravaged the Gulf Coast region and left thousands without homes—drew attention to the need for improved emergency response and clear evacuation routes and procedures.

“‘If you’re scared, you can go ahead and leave’ is not the right message,” said Emmett, reflecting on the mass evacuations during Hurricane Rita. “It’s not reassuring. The philosophy we abide by now is ‘run from water; hide from wind.’ In other words, if you’re in a flood-prone area, get out. If wind is the only threat to you, then board up your windows, hunker down and assess the damage afterwards.”

In the aftermath of Rita’s evacuation debacle, Harris County officials created a much more organized and systematic evacuation plan. Officials developed detailed maps of Houston and surrounding areas that explain which residents should evacuate when and under what circumstances. Additionally, the creation of well-defined contraflow lanes will help to accommodate the large amounts of traffic that would be generated during a large-scale evacuation.

These new emergency preparedness plans were nearly put to the test earlier this year when Hurricane Dean was predicted to make landfall in Harris County. State and local officials took action immediately. In an effort to avoid fuel shortages, Texas Gov. Rick Perry diverted fuel supplies from areas in the state that were not threatened by Dean. Although Dean never reached Harris County, many felt it was an excellent test for the preparedness of emergency responders.

“Fortunately for us, Hurricane Dean moved to Mexico. But the county’s emergency preparations wereexecuted perfectly and reassured us that our plans are in working condition,” said Emmett.

“Being in a hurricane-prone area has allowed our first response team to become really well-honed to their jobs because it is not a matter of ‘if’ a disaster occurs, but ‘when,’” he said. “That means that we must always be prepared.”

Morgan Gossom works for The Writers for Hire Inc. based in Houston, Texas. The company handles a variety of writing projects, including Web content and ghost writing. To learn more about the company or to view its writing portfolio, visit www.thewritersforhire.com .

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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