Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2014 Vol. 61 No. 2

The Adages of Preparation

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Various levels exist on the scale of preparedness for crisis. In government agencies, this begins at the city or county level and builds up to a federal level; each layer building upon policies of planning and what ifs. One such layer of emergency management lies at the county level and exists to safeguard, prevent and be prepared for incidents occurring in areas that operate county jail facilities.

TSO Life Safety Officers

TCSO Life Safety Officers. Left to right are: Ervin Wheatley, Kevin Ambler, Larry Laws (recently retired) and Steven Wentrcek (supervisor)

In Travis County, the Risk Management Division of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) contains a very small, core group of men who are referred to as Life Safety. One supervisor and two to three officers shield the infrastructure of two jail facilities and several administrative buildings. They work to create relationships and plan to both prevent and act on internal and external critical incidents. When pestered for their secrets and how fewer than five people can maintain facilities that house an average of over 2,400 inmates every year, adages are aplenty. The explanation of these phrases detail just how important fundamentals can be in preparing for emergencies.

“Know your weaknesses”

TSO Life Safety Officers

When it comes to jail facilities in crisis, it’s all about the prep. Pre-planning and prevention are when the Life Safety officers at TCSO can test the waters (sometimes literally!) and discover where the corrections staff can improve on safety and security of jail facilities. Recently, the TCSO Incident Command System was activated due to an outbreak of legionella. The bacteria had contaminated the drinking water flowing through the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, Texas. Together with Risk Management and the Department of Health and Human Services, ICC NIMS was put into action and the bacteria was eliminated from the water supply.

TSO Life Safety Officers

On the opposite spectrum of emergencies, it is deemed by the Life Safety office that fire is the number one disaster that threatens the TCSO jail facilities. Knowing the building’s weaknesses, various steps are taken to prevent fire and if one occurs, methods are in place to extinguish it quickly. Training staff is of upmost importance in preparing for fire emergencies, including early recognition and detection. Corrections officers are given a boost by the direct supervision style of management in the jail units. Life Safety has ensured a line of overhead sprinklers are always in working order to suppress fire. This preparation is practiced regularly so all are aware of their roles in this emergency. If severe weather hits and shift changes are unable to occur, the facility will go on complete lockdown. Officers inside the complex will stay and work overtime until conditions improve. Putting everything on lockdown lessens mental stress on staff and provides an additional level of security, knowing personnel will be tired and overworked. This status allows for breaks and to possibly allow certain individuals to leave if the situation is confirmed to be safe.

“Know what you don’t know”
In an emergency crisis, the last thing anyone has time for is a lack of resources. Resources that are of extreme importance to jail facilities are money and people. Before a disaster hits, pools of resources are gathered through networking and helping others in times of crisis. Command staff for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office travel across the United States and constantly make contacts for the Life Safety group. Emails and phone numbers are passed around between agencies webbing a safety net for each other to bounce off of. If facing a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane, emergency and law enforcement staff may not be counted upon to be able to show up to work—they may well be providing for their families. Networking resources become highly useful in such a situation, because those positions can be filled by individuals outside the zone of impact. When under the pressure of a critical incident or natural disaster, it is crucial to have resources and use a “think tank” approach in knowing whom to pull together. It is equally important to not only have manpower, but financial power in times of crisis. TCSO maintains emergency funds that can be accessed and used quickly. This enables Life Safety to immediately contact resources for items, such as back-up generators, in order to maintain normal operations in the jail facilities. Knowing the right people and having quickly accessible monetary funds allow preparation plans to be put into action without delay.

“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”

Life Safety

Training staff is an imperative part of emergency preparedness for jail facilities. Life Safety assists in running drills that change every quarter and hit on the common emergencies staff may encounter. Fire, escapes, evacuations, natural disaster, riot and emergency equipment use are several of the drills completed by all staff working at a TCSO jail facility. In addition to running drills, employees attend various trainings to enhance their skills and present new ways of learning information.

Data and numbers can be powerful in stressful situations and Life Safety has looked ahead to protect policies, numbers and data necessary to maintain jail operations in a state of disaster. All computer information is backed up on servers and remains accessible, even in times of a power outage.

The last quote “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” almost creates a cyclic pattern of adages. It is only with preparation that units, whether that be a jail, office, family or government can learn their weaknesses and discover what it is they do not know. The infrastructure of emergency preparedness in any system must be solid and cohesive within its parts. Next time a natural disaster is forecasted or if a rolling black out occurs, the dedicated office of Life Safety will be there to protect and maintain the veil of security.

Travis County Correctional Complex
Jail Unit

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