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Steve Collier: Austin's

Monday, July 7, 2003 by

Emergency Management Officer

By Keith Sennikoff

Austin’s Office of Emergency Management is ground zero for coordinating response to any and all major emergencies and disasters, and the man in the driver’s seat is director Steve Collier. His official city title is Emergency Management Officer.

Collier says the most noticeable difference his department has experienced since September 11, 2001 has been “a much greater level of involvement” on the part of senior city management and the City Council in how the city approaches emergency efforts. Prior to that, he says, “They were aware of it but did not tend to be typically involved,” in matters such as security of the city’s infrastructure. Now he says, both the Council and City Manager’s Office show “much more direct interest in emergency planning and disaster planning.”

Collier says he is pleased with that change, “because they are the key decision makers, and they need to be much more aware than they tend to be.”

There have been a lot jokes—as well as news stories—about the federal government’s color-coded terrorist warning system. Collier says it there “really is no significant difference for us,” when the warning level changes from yellow to orange. Change is felt at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, he says, but airport security is run by the Transportation Security Administration .” Collier’s department gauges the threat level and makes an independent decision on whether to take extra precautions.

Born in 1949 in Akron, Ohio, Collier received his Bachelors degree in math from DePaul University in Indiana. After graduating, he earned certification as an emergency manager from the International Association of Emergency Managers. Before coming to Austin in 1989, Collier had been involved in emergency management in Indianapolis, Indiana for ten years. Part of that time he worked as an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy near Washington D.C. It was while running a training program on disaster management there that he ran into then assistant Austin Fire Chief Robin Paulsgrove.

“He indicated to me that they had just taken over responsibility for emergency management in the fire department at that time . . . The emergency management office had been transferred from the police department to the fire department in 1989 and the director was retiring and he wanted to know if I was interested in applying for the job. I went ahead and applied for the job, came down for the interview and was real impressed with where they were trying to go and how they were trying to deal with things down here. And my wife liked Austin.”

In 2000, the Office of Emergency Management was transferred from the fire department to the City Manager’s office. Broadly, the office deals with four phases of activities: hazard mitigation and prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

Hazard mitigation and preparation

Concerning the first phase, “We just developed a hazard mitigation plan that’s trying to integrate all the different planning and programs aimed at preventing disasters or minimizing disaster losses. A good example of what we’re working on is trying to get people out of floodplains, rather than getting flooded.” Collier would like to see the cycle of federal government assistance followed by rebuilding of homes that only get flooded again.

The second phase, preparedness, “is where we spend most of our time. We just got done with a counter-terrorism planning group that’s looking at details of how we’re going to deal with, for example, a smallpox outbreak. The Health Department is developing smallpox vaccination plans. We’ve already developed the core plans—but we’re just looking at all the details of how we would deal with a smallpox outbreak in Austin. So we deal with a lot of coordination groups, sitting around a table talking about all the issues: who’s going to do what, who’s got what roles and responsibilities . . . So there’s just a huge amount of work in that preparedness phase, of planning and coordinating and just information sharing.”

Protecting sensitive information Collier was also involved in formulating House Bill 9, which he described as “a very sweeping homeland security bill.” That legislation, signed by the Governor last month and effective immediately, was designed to “protect sensitive information that’s related to terrorism response plans or capabilities (and) vulnerability analyses. There are a number of lawsuits with the University of Texas, where the Daily Texan has requested information on surveillance cameras located on the campus (and) in the city.” Neither of the organizations wants to release that information, even though Attorney General Gregg Abbott said it must be released. “So now we’ve got court cases going on that.”

The legislation does what Collier and others were seeking, making confidential “information that would be too much of a road map for the bad guys . . . We’re trying to protect certain pieces(of data) that we think are very critical: everything from our detailed tactical plans that say, ‘here’s where we’re going to stage, here’s where they’re going to be, here’s their equipment, here’s their radio call signs, (here’s their) pager and cell phone numbers.’” But Collier does understand arguments from the other side, “. . . people who don’t want counter terrorism and homeland security to become an excuse for hiding a whole bunch of information that people ought to be able to see.”

In an emergency situation, or what is called the response phase, the Office of Emergency Management brings in the appropriate agency representatives and coordinates information flow, problem solving and resources. “So if they’ve got, say, an airplane crash, we’re providing resources to them. If it’s a flooding situation, we can request state assistance” (such as for Black Hawk helicopters to fly search and rescue missions). “We can start to prioritize resource needs and make command-level decisions about various things. During the ice storm we were coordinating whether roads were closed or open and if there were key routes that needed to be open, or entrances to hospitals, or routes that fire and EMS and police needed to be able to travel on, we were coordinating sanding operations and things like that . . . a hospital may call on the phone and say ambulances cannot get in or out of our facility, so we turn to the street and bridge people and say, ‘Can you put this on a high priority and get somebody over to do it?’ Typically within a half an hour we can have that done.”

The response phase can go on for one day, several days or a week depending on how big the emergency is. “We’re set up to be able to operate continuously if we need to. Those agency reps go on a 12-hour shift, so that’s how we handle that stuff. During the ice storm we ran for about 42 hours.”

After t he storm After the response phase, emergency managers move into the recovery phase—frequently a euphemism for debris removal. “That becomes a very big issue if you get into a flood or tornado . . . you’ve got all this debris in all these neighborhoods. It gets to be a real politically charged situation. People want to get rid of that stuff. We get into problems where people have a lot of debris on their property. The city can’t go onto private property to clean their stuff up, but if they can get it to the curb or get it near the curb, the city can get out there. We’ve got to cut up the trees in the middle of the street. We have to go into a major new mode of operation to get rid of all that debris in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Damage assessment is another big one for us. One of the first questions early on is do we have enough damage to be able to get a disaster declaration at the presidential level. So we need to some fairly detailed information about how much damage was done in the city, to city property and facilities. And then how much is out there in individual private facilities; the Red Cross helps out with that, a bunch of agencies are helping out with that. We gather that information, compile it and provide it to the state, and eventually the Federal Emergency Management Agency gets involved. So that’s a big drawn-out protracted bureaucratic process, but it’s critical because if we can identify sufficient damage that makes all those private individuals eligible for federal disaster assistance. Which is a big deal to those folks—and it can make a significant difference to the city as well. We can run into millions of dollars of uninsured losses.”

“A lot of times people will need help with demolition, with rebuilding their homes. They have no insurance; they have no money; they’re living in these houses that were flooded. The water goes down but it’s sopping wet; it’s come up the walls, in the insulation, the carpeting, the furniture, it’s just a great big huge mess. A lot of times people assume that the city has a disaster contingency fund. ‘Why doesn’t the city just give me money?’ Well, we just don’t have any money to give.”

Of all natural disasters, flooding has caused the most damage over the years and is the most common major problem the office deals with. “The worst year was 1981 when we lost 13 people. We continue to have flash flooding situations at low water crossings. We continue to have people that have to be rescued. We continue to have fatalities.”

Another function of the Office of Emergency Management—one that might well be eliminated after the impending budget cuts—is educating the public on disaster awareness. “What we recommend to people is that you have a basic disaster kit available to you so that you can deal with some of the more routine things that can happen to you, like a power outage. Do you have a way to get information? Can you talk on your phone if you don’t have power?”

“We just give them a few things to keep in mind for any kind of emergency and the vast majority of those things would apply to a terrorist incident as well. We try to point out just to pay a little more attention to your surroundings and to odd behavior that you see; those things are always helpful. You know: if somebody’s got an overcoat on and it’s ninety degrees outside . . .”

“It’s very, very unlikely that something is going to affect the entire population. But when you get things like anthrax, which are apparently coming through the mail, we don’t know who’s doing it. It turns out that very small amounts were capable of making people sick; everybody instantly felt like the delivery system was right there: my mailbox. That was a very difficult situation to deal with. We had hundreds and hundreds of those white powder calls coming in. We’re really hoping we don’t have to deal with that again.”

Collier and his wife Barbara have three boys: Michael, 20; Brian, 18; and Greg, 16. To take his mind off keeping Austinites safe everyday, Collier swims with the master’s swimming group and plays golf with his sons.

Residential taxpayers will

Bear county tax increase

Travis expects to balance budget without layoffs Travis County Commissioners will go into budget planning this summer looking at a fairly stable financial outlook and a proposed three-cent tax increase.

Executive Manager of Planning and Budget Christian Smith, along with Budget Director Leroy Nellis, presented the basic parameters of the budget and tax rate at the Commissioners Court meeting last week. The effective tax rate for next year—which will generate the same amount of money as last year’s budget—is up 3 cents over last year, to 49 cents per hundred-dollar valuation.

“We’re not in a financial crisis,” Smith said after the presentation. “We do have financial challenges.”

County Commissioners have one more work session on July 17 before budget officials file a preliminary balanced budget. According to a memo from Smith, “At this point, I think it is fair to say that the numbers we are now reporting are reasonably close to what you will likely see in the Preliminary Budget, in the absence of Commissioners Court direction to the contrary.”

If the county maintains its effective tax rate, the average homeowner would pay $54 more each year. That figure is based on the value of an average homestead increasing from $189,796 to $191,858. However, home values have remained flat. The effective tax rate is up this year because commercial property values have dropped 18 percent, Smith said, shifting the burden for county services somewhat.

The second revenue estimate by the county is $310 million in revenues, of which $230.4 million will come from property taxes. That compares to $303.6 million from last year. Under the budget parameters set in March, county departments are aiming for a total budget of $259.4 million. If departments pass their anticipated budgets, it could provide the county with $3.4 million in savings.

Smith credits long-term planning with the county’s financial stability. Two years ago, commissioners and county staff anticipated the economic downturn and began to put reserves away for future use. This year, the county expects to put $2.3 million away in the emergency reserve. Commissions also all but ended dipping into savings and using one-time windfalls for ongoing expenditures.

“We made those decisions with caution and anticipation of where we are today,” Smith said.

The Planning and Budget Office has distributed the budget write-ups in draft form to county departments and is in the process of reviewing those drafts. Meetings will continue through this week. Budget officials expect to recommend $6 million in savings. The savings, outlined under budget parameters presented to the court last week, include extra costs and anticipated reductions.

Increases to the budget will include $4.5 million in health benefits for county employees. The county also anticipates another $2.8 million on additional contractual obligations and another $1 million to address the projected deficit within the county’s Health and Human Services Department. Indigent attorney fees and the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve are expected to cost the county $1 million apiece.

The county will also spend another $1 million to open new buildings and parks this year. That includes Northeast, East and Southeast Metro Parks, as well as a new precinct building in Precinct 4, the expansion of offices in Precinct 1 and the opening of two rural community centers/clinics. The county’s expense for the Combined Communications Center will be a little less than $1.4 million this year.

Recommended cuts will include $3.4 million in departmental reductions. Those reductions will come from expected attrition and temporary position freezes, rather than layoffs. The county also anticipates saving $570,000 in lease payments, with the purchase of new buildings. The county will also see about $1 million in savings from court-approved budget reductions, such as the reorganization of the Justice and Public Safety Departments.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Political junkies, stay tuned . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court has agreed to provide live coverage of the Texas House of Representatives through the special legislative session. TCTV will carry the House sessions from 10am until the session is recessed for the day . . . Playing at the House . . . The House will reconvene at 2pm today to begin debate on redistricting. Democratic activists have been advised to bring a white sock to the gallery to “sock it to Tom Delay” . . . ZAP report . . . It was a short meeting last week for the Zoning and Platting Commission. Most cases were either passed on consent or postponed. An item related to the Sienna Hills Municipal Utility District that had been previously approved by the commission will be reconsidered at its July 22 meeting. Commission Chair Betty Baker asked staff to look into canceling one meeting each in August, September, October and December, leaving the commission with two meetings per month from August until the end of the year. This week’s meeting had already been canceled due to the July 4 holiday . . . DANA party with Mayor Will Wynn . . . Members of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association are having their quarterly meeting at the Towers of Town Lake tonight. Meeting planners promise a poolside chat at the Towers’ swimming pool with Mayor Will Wynn for members and media . . . Rainey subcommittee meeting . . . The Downtown Commission’ s three-member subcommittee will have a brief meeting beginning at 5:30pm today to discuss input received during a recent meeting with Rainey Street residents and property owners. The committee will meet at Team Haas Architects, 1011 San Jacinto Blvd., Ste. 411. The trio is scheduled to decide on a recommendation for the area to the full commission tonight. Of course, many other groups have made recommendations and plans for the area, but all for naught . . . Crazy . . . Zilker Theatre Productions will begin performances of the musical “Crazy for You” this Friday, which will continue every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through August 9, at the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater in Zilker Park. The production is filled with Gershwin favorites including, “I Got Rhythm,” “Shall We Dance” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The show will begin at approximately 8:15pm each evening, weather permitting.

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