BURNET — With four major thoroughfares running through Burnet County, the types and amount of toxic, even deadly, materials on the road at any time might send a chill down your spine. While those chemicals make safe and uneventful journeys every day, county officials are planning for the moment one doesn’t.
“What we have concerns about and what we want to get out to the public is about all these materials coming through on our thoroughfares,” said Burnet County Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Barho, referring to U.S. 281, Texas 71, Texas 29, and U.S. 183. “If you read the placards on some of these trucks, you’d be shocked at the types of chemicals and potentially toxic materials moving through here.
“It’s something I think about a lot,” he added.
In an effort to get first responders, local government officials, regional entities, local hospitals and schools, and many other organizations ready to respond to a hazardous materials incident, Burnet County is holding a tabletop training exercise 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, at the Burnet Community Center, 401 E. Jackson St.
Barho wants to get the word out about this large-scale tabletop exercise for at two reasons.
First, he doesn’t want people alarmed if they see several official and emergency vehicles at the community center during that time.
The event, headed up by the Burnet County Local Emergency Planning Committee, is pulling together a wide range of organizations and entities that might be affected by a hazardous materials incident. Barho pointed out that this doesn’t just include first responders such as fire, police, and EMS.
His second reason for informing the public about the event?
“If something like this did happen, you’re looking at an event that could potentially impact a large area,” he said. “It could affect schools, hospitals, businesses downtown, a lot of different things.”
That’s the thing that keeps emergency planners such as Barho and LEPC committee member Tom Stephens awake at night and is the impetus behind this tabletop exercise.
“We want to bring all these different groups and organizations together — not just first responders — to train for something like this,” Stephens said.
Under a 1975 state law, every county has an LEPC, but funding from the state hasn’t always supported training and planning. Burnet County, however, has put a priority on emergency planning for several years.
In early 2006, Barho asked then-Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger to consider getting every county employee certified through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Incident Command System.
The training would help the county respond to emergencies. For six to seven months through March 2007, Burnet County held weekly ICS training.
“Then, who would have known, but we had that rain bomb in June of 2007,” said Barho, referring to an event where approximately 19 inches of rain fell within a matter of a few hours in the Marble Falls area, causing catastrophic flooding.
“We rescued hundreds of people with helicopters and vehicles. We lost those two boys (whose vehicle was swept off RR 1431 by flood waters), but it could have been much worse,” Barho said. “We learned a lot from that 2007 flood.”
A couple of those lessons were the importance of training personnel for such events while making sure all the first responder entities in the area could communicate and work together.
Stephens pointed out that one of the biggest hindrances first responders and local, state, and regional organizations face in dealing with emergency situations is being on the same page .
“It’s something we learned a lot about from 9/11,” he said.
Which is a big reason for the Oct. 6 tabletop exercise. But, Stephens pointed out, this isn’t a one-and-done type of event. In fact, the LEPC has been working diligently for at least the past year on this and other possible emergencies.
The LEPC holds regular meetings during which leaders and representatives from several organizations and entities gather to plan for possible emergency situations and how to respond.
It’s not something you can wait for to happen and expect a good response. Stephens pointed out that it might sound easy, but executing an emergency response takes a great deal of coordination.
“Say we need to evacuate a lot of people, and maybe we need school buses,” he said. “We can’t just head over to the bus barn and get those buses. Who do we call? Who makes that decision at the school district?”
Barho added that, in the event of a major emergency or hazardous materials incident, many of the local first responder units will take action, but that doesn’t mean the other emergency calls stop. Someone still has to handle the car accidents and medical calls.
Barho said facilitators will devise a hazardous materials incident within Burnet County that would affect a large area. Then, they’ll divide the participants into two nods of about 30 each. The participants will include first responders, city and county officials, school leaders, hospital officials, regional emergency response units, and even state agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation.
The two nods will begin working through the scenario, trying to assemble the proper equipment, alert the proper authorities and organizations, and address the emergency. Then, Barho said, facilitators will inject another problem into the scenario, one that is unexpected and would trigger additional responses and problem solving.
Each nod tackles the scenario separately.
“The nods will simulate what they’d do in response, but the idea is to work together and come up with a solution,” Barho said.
Stephens pointed out that this exercise also allows people in different organizations and entities who might never cross paths to sit across the table from one another and connect with someone they may have to reach out to in case of an emergency, hazardous material disaster or otherwise.
While Barho doesn’t want to scare residents in regard to the hazardous materials moving through Burnet County on its roads, he wants them to be aware of the potential danger and that the county is preparing for any possible disaster.
“There’s a real threat to our community, but we’re preparing,” Barho said. “And it’s not just this tabletop exercise. We’re always training and planning. We’re trying to be ahead of any possible disaster.”