Texas Lawmaker Pushes for Locals on USAR Team

June 2, 2013
Texas Task Force One's criteria require all first responders to be in College Station within six hours, but the Valley's agencies could never meet the threshold.

June 02--After a fertilizer plant explosion crippled West and a tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., the Rio Grande Valley's first responders prepared for their usual drill.

They watched rescue and recovery efforts from afar.

Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider said that's been a familiar feeling for the Valley's first responders ever since they watched the state's elite search and rescue team rush to the U.S.-Mexico border to help flood victims in 1998.

"You had cars and buildings under water and people drowning," Snider said of the Rio Grande flooding that killed more than a dozen in the Del Rio area back then. "We deployed the Texas Task Force but since we're not designated, the Rio Grande Valley sat here and watched it on TV."

But a measure promoted by Snider could end the Valley's seat on the sidelines by allowing its best first responders to join Texas Task Force One, the urban search and rescue team that has responded to events ranging from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks to Hurricane Katrina since its inception.

State Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez, D-Weslaco, passed legislation this session that allows the Valley's first responders to attach to the task force when it's deployed by Gov. Rick Perry to disasters in Texas and other states.

Headquartered in College Station as part of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, Texas Task Force One brings together more than 600 highly trained members capable of responding to earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, terrorist attacks and any other natural or manmade disaster. Since its first tornado response in 1997, Texas Task Force One has been deployed roughly 100 times to search for survivors in structural collapses, rescue people caught in swift waters and secure hazardous materials.

But Texas Task Force One's criteria require all first responders to be in College Station and ready to deploy within six hours. While that's more than doable for first responders traveling from Houston, Austin or San Antonio, the Valley's agencies -- located 6.5 hours away from College Station at best -- could never meet the threshold.

Martinez's legislation provides an exemption for the Valley's first responders by allowing them to later attach to Texas Task Force One. Martinez, a firefighter and paramedic with the city of Weslaco, said the Valley's proximity to College Station shouldn't hinder their ability to help elsewhere.

"All of them are well trained and prepared for these types of incidents, whether it's hurricane season or any natural or manmade incident," Martinez said. "We wanted to have that designation to say we are equipped and ready to help."

The Valley has steadily been building up its own response capabilities over the past decade.

In the wake of 9/11, it created the Rio Grande Valley Regional Response Association as a coalition of cities and counties that would partner together on an all-hazards approach. Rather than individual cities pursuing their own goals when spending Department of Homeland Security grant aid, they agreed to focus on developing thorough response capabilities for the region.

Mission, Weslaco, Brownsville and South Padre Island, for example, focused on building dive teams to provide coverage across the Valley. Harlingen, Brownsville, McAllen and Mission expanded the Valley's hazardous materials capabilities, and other agencies took over other pieces of the operation.

Mission Fire Chief Rick Saldana said the plan was to develop a self-sufficient response team for the Valley, but it also built out capabilities that could be useful for incidents where Texas Task Force One responds. In addition to providing more manpower for the task force, Saldana said allowing the Valley to attach to Texas Task Force One provides quicker responses to events closer to the Valley, like the floods in Del Rio.

"We're the initial first responders for (Texas Task Force One) until they can gather to be able to support us," he said. "Should an incident happen in North Texas, we could come as a backup to them and provide what they need."

Martinez's legislation, House Bill 1090, passed both the House and Senate with broad support. It was sent last week to the governor's office.

A spokesman for Perry said his office is still reviewing the bill. Officials with Texas A&M and the Texas Department of Public Safety could not comment until final action is taken on the legislation.

But Valley officials said the regional response team developed here could be a model for other parts of Texas that are far removed from Texas Task Force One's base in College Station, such as the Panhandle and other parts of West Texas.

By allowing the Valley to participate with Texas Task Force One, it opens up access to coordinated training opportunities through Texas A&M. When Valley agencies respond to disasters elsewhere, the local governments would be eligible for reimbursements from state and federal disaster funds for any associated costs.

And local first responders who want to do what they can to help won't be turned away or put at unnecessary risk. Emergency officials who respond to incidents elsewhere on their own, often called freelancing, don't qualify for workers compensation or insurance plans if they are injured or killed in the act.

Allowing the Valley's first responders to join Texas Task Force One will improve response capabilities at home once they deploy with and learn from the state's best, said Snider, the Edinburg fire chief. But he added it will also show that the Valley's first responders have their own part to play in West, Moore or any other disaster.

"This is a very good proving point that we've got capabilities here in South Texas," Snider said. "We've got a lot of smart and highly-trained firefighters, paramedics and police officers who want to respond."


Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at [email protected] and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.

Copyright 2013 - The Monitor, McAllen, Texas

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