What Happens in the State Operations Center?
This is the first of a series of articles about the State Operations Center, the professionals who staff it and its role in protecting Texans before and during disasters.
Prior to 1950, disaster relief and recovery in Texas was essentially left up to local jurisdictions, but after a series of major disasters, including the New London school disaster in 1937 and the Texas City explosion in 1947, it became apparent that disaster preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery needed a central organization to support the efforts of local governments.
From droughts to floods and hurricanes to wildfires, Texas is home to some of the most extreme and dangerous weather conditions of any state. The State Operations Center (SOC), located at the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin, is the cornerstone of Texas’ emergency management system.
Construction of the SOC began in 1962, and, due to tensions of the Cold War, the entire structure was contained within a shock absorbing concrete box and buried deep in the limestone and caliche of north central Austin. Protected by large, steel blast doors, the structure was designed to withstand the nearby hit of a 20-megaton nuclear blast.
The SOC serves as the state warning point and primary state direction and control facility, and is managed and staffed by the Operations Section of the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) during its normal operations, which is 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The Daily Operations staff monitors threats, makes notification of threats, provides information on emergency incidents to local, state and federal officials and coordinates assistance requests from local governments through the DPS District offices. In addition, Daily Operations also manages the AMBER Alert, Silver Alert, Blue Alert and Missing and Endangered Persons Alert programs. In a typical year the SOC Daily Operations coordinates 3,000 to 4,000 local incidents.
The SOC also coordinates state emergency assistance to local governments that have experienced an emergency situation and can no longer support the emergency locally or with local mutual aide.
During major emergencies and disasters, TDEM staff along with agencies and volunteer organizations that make up the state Emergency Management Council and federal liaison teams convene at the SOC to identify, mobilize and deploy state and voluntary agency resources to respond to the emergency or disaster.
SOC Readiness Levels
Many emergencies follow a recognizable build-up period during which actions can be taken to achieve a gradually increasing state of readiness. The following readiness levels are used as a means of increasing a jurisdiction’s readiness status.
No significant emergency is present. Daily Operations continues to conduct normal business and monitors the state for any natural and technological threats. Local responders resolve emergency incidents that might occur in their areas.
Typical Events: Daily emergency responses, high profile visitor(s), weather and threat monitoring and notification. Processes requests for assistance from local jurisdictions when they are impacted by local/regional emergency or disaster events when requested by the Disaster District and when the SOC is not at an increased readiness level.
Typical Notification: TDEM staff, emergency management coordinators and directors, fire departments/EMS, law enforcement, public works.
A higher than normal level of readiness is warranted because of increased vulnerability to a specific hazard or an emergency event has occurred that may require some assistance from the state. Requests for mutual aid resources for emergency assistance may be received and/or requested. Advisory notifications are sent to the Emergency Management Council, DPS Disaster Districts and appropriate officials and agency representatives are briefed on anticipated risk situations and potential impacts. Coordination activities may increase and selected Emergency Management Council agencies and organizations may respond to the event.
Typical Events: Tropical weather system developing in area, widespread flash flooding, increased fire conditions, escalating or immediate risk to impact area(s).
Typical Notification: TDEM staff, DPS Disaster Districts, emergency management coordinators and directors, fire departments/EMS, law enforcement, public works, Emergency Management Council and public information office.
Escalated Response Conditions
The scope of the emergency has expanded beyond that which can be handled by local responders and normal state and local government operations may be impaired. Emergency facilities increase staffing, expand hours of operation and intensify coordination. The response level of DPS Disaster Districts, Emergency Management Council agencies and organizations are expanded, possibly to full activation depending upon the incident or event. Appropriate officials and agency representatives are briefed on the current situation and anticipated impacts.
Typical Events: Major tornado impact, widespread flash flooding, major fire conditions, major medical emergencies and hurricane warnings.
Typical Notification: TDEM staff, mayor/ city manager/county judge, emergency management coordinators, fire departments/EMS, law enforcement, DPS Disaster Districts, Emergency Management Council agency representatives, public works and public information office.
The scope of the incident has expanded beyond the response capability of local agencies. The SOC is staffed with representatives from the Emergency Management Council agencies and organizations and remains operational for the duration of the incident. DPS Disaster Districts are at increased readiness levels. The SOC fulfills requests for assistance from local governments and may seek intrastate mutual aid and/or federal aid as needed.
Typical Events: Large scale evacuation and sheltering for specific parts of the impact area due to a major incident or hurricane response, community wide threats such as a large hazardous materials spill and wide scale flooding.
Typical Notification: Mayor/city manager/ county judge, emergency management coordinator, fire departments/EMS, law enforcement, Emergency Management Council agency representatives, DPS Disaster Districts, public works and public information office.
SOC Activation and the Texas Emergency Management Council
The Texas Emergency Management Council, which is composed of state agencies, the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army, is established by state law to advise and assist the Governor in all matters relating to disaster mitigation, emergency preparedness, disaster response and recovery.
The council is a group of agencies that have legal responsibility, expertise or resources needed for a specific emergency response function.
As this issue of the Texas Emergency Management Online (TEMO) was being finalized, the SOC was in Level III activation due to flash flooding and widespread river flooding across the state. Governor Abbott had declared a state of disaster in 31 Texas counties, and the rain continued to fall.
In the next issue of TEMO we will outline the activation process of the SOC and what happens during activation.