Personnel involved in a practice exercise for a major emergency response sit in a makeshift Emergency Operation Center last Friday inside the Texas County Administrative Building in downtown Houston. From left, Earleen Stoops of the Texas County Health Department, Texas County Emergency Management assistant Deanna Robison, Texas County Presiding Commissioner Scott Long, Texas County Emergency Management Director Bill Karatzas and Licking Emergency Management Director Clint Schwartz. Credit: DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

While emergency response personnel hope they never have to deal with a major incident, they also know it’s crucial to be prepared to deal with one.

With that in mind, first responders from several state and county agencies conducted an exercise last Friday designed as a practice session for how a major emergency would be handled. Led by Texas County Emergency Management Director Bill Karatzas, the procedure involved a mock hazardous materials incident caused by a fictitious crash on U.S. 63 in the Twin Bridges area between two tanker trucks, one carrying chlorine gas and the other gasoline.

Karatzas and others set up a makeshift Emergency Operation Center (EOC) inside the meeting room in the basement of the Texas County Administrative Building in downtown Houston. Meanwhile, other officials were staged at the City of Houston Fire Department station, not far away on First Street.

“In the beginning of an incident, 911 is running the show,” Karatzas said. “But if it’s a big enough incident, it would activate an Emergency Operation Center.”

Most of the people who would man a local EOC would do so as volunteers.

“We have to do a transition from 911 to us,” Karatzas said, “and then we would take over support of that incident.”

A real-life EOC would feature people involved logistics, coordination of medical services, planning for subsequent stages of the response, and any other necessary aspect of the overall operation.

Karatzas was joined in the practice EOC by Texas County Presiding Commissioner Scott Long, Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) director Kent Edge, City of Licking Emergency Management Director Clint Schwartz and Texas County Emergency Management assistant Deanna Robison. Also participating were personnel from the Texas County Health Department, Texas County 911, and officials with the City of Houston, Houston Rural and Raymondville fire departments.

“We have a pretty good representation of what would be needed here,” Karatzas said.

If the scenario had been real, many procedures would be addressed, such as rerouting traffic for an extended period, treating people exposed to the chlorine, notifying media sources, clean-up strategies and much, much more.

“An incident of this nature would be much different than your typical accident scene,” Karatzas said, “where a tow truck shows up and an hour later the highway is open. Or even a fire that takes maybe a couple of hours. Here we’re talking about multiple operational periods. Since 911 doesn’t plan for more than one period, that’s what we would do.”

Long was getting a feel for his potential role as Exercise Director.

“I’ve learned a lot just watching what’s going on here,” he said. “It’s good to know that if something major happens, these guys can handle it very efficiently.”

Karatzas even prepared and read a detailed statement about the incident as he would for a real-life press conference. The exercise was a capstone project for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) course he is close to completing.

Karatzas can be reached by email at vasilikaratzas@gmail.com.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply