By Bruce Barr
TAC County G.I.S. Analyst
On March 20, two Texas Forest Service (TFS) leaders spoke to county judges at the TAC Spring Judicial Academy Administrative Training Workshop in Lubbock. TFS Director Tom Boggus covered the topic of a persistent drought in Texas while Justin Musgraves, TFS Lubbock Region Fire Coordinator, talked about the Lone Star Incident Management Teams (IMT).
Drought is always a timely topic in West Texas and this year was no different. Although the drought has eased slightly for some parts of the state, all of West Texas is still experiencing what the USDA considers abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions.
Boggus stated that not only was the current stretch the driest, but that last summer was the hottest summer of recorded history. So far this spring that trend is holding true with March being the warmest month ever recorded nationally.
Unlike last year where most of Texas had a significant rain period prior to the wildfire outbreaks, West Texas seems to have been passed over by this winter and spring’s heavy rain events. With the fire season approaching, and forecasts looking at a return to an “El Nino” pattern settling in until at least July, the western half of the state is looking ripe for a repeat of the firestorms of last April.
Because of good foresight, a significant number of resources were preplaced before the outbreaks last year. Boggus reported to the judges that during the April 2011 fires, TFS resources in Texas stretched 660 miles north to south and 640 miles east to west.
He also said that the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS) was another reason for the relative success of the 2011 fire season. Using TIFMAS, which was set up for local support of hurricane, flood and wildfire response, there were seven mobilizations this year for 354 engines and 1,280 firefighters from 204 fire departments.
The use of air resources included a DC 10, C130s, and other aircraft for a total of 16,920 flight hours, 54,475 drops with more than 34 million total gallons dropped of both water and retardant.
“Texas has more than 60,000 active firefighters, more than half of them volunteers,” Boggus said.
He also noted that volunteer fire departments respond to 90 percent of the wildfires in Texas – departments with little to no money. Boggus continued his presentation by describing the how TFS is the incident management team responsible for Texas response and how it coordinates with the other southern states and state agencies for a unified response to extreme weather events.
Texas All-Hazard Type 3 Incident Management Teams (IMTs)
Justin Musgraves, TFS regional fire coordinator, Lubbock region, began his discussion by stressing that while the Texas Forest Service is designated in the State Emergency Management Plan as the primary incident management agency for the state and can be called to respond to all-hazard emergencies, not every incident needs a state or federal response. A more effective way to manage all-hazard emergencies would be to train local responders to help themselves and each other when in need.
“Working under the Type 3 program, TFS trains local emergency responders from across the state so they may be called upon to help their neighbors,” Musgraves said.
Musgraves continued by explaining that the back bone of the IMT system is the federal National Incident Management System, or NIMS. Within NIMS, a set of necessary functional incident command staff positions are identified along with non-essential positions. According to the NIMS structure, the successful handling of an emergency event at any level relies on how the local responding community fulfills the command, planning, financial, logistical and operational needs associated with that incident.
According to Musgraves, “The TFS All-Hazard IMT is staffed by highly skilled specialists trained to provide coordination and technical leadership to local responders in those key need areas.”
The NIMS also provides a standardized way to safely coordinate and manage people, resources and communication across jurisdictions.
Why have regional IMTs?
The Texas Forest Service responds to an average of 10 all-hazards incidents per year and unfortunately, they often occur during the fire season when there are competing missions and a fight for resources. With most of these incidents happening within a relatively small time frame, TFS alone doesn’t have the people to successfully meet the projected demand. The ability to respond to a local event locally was a driving force behind the creation of the IMTs.
Since all incidents start and end at the local level, having local incident command teams capable of responding to, and mitigating an issue with little-to-no state assistance, seemed elementary. According to Musgrave, trained local incident management teams could also provide key initial intelligence about complex incidents — intelligence that is often missing or flawed during the first 24 to 72 hours.
Lastly, with a local IMT in place, there is a seamless transition of roles and responsibilities as a greater response force rolls in and rolls out.
As the local incident commander, how do I request a team and what do they do? According to Musgraves, during a disaster, “IMTs can bring order to chaos by providing resource management, situational awareness, planning assistance, public information, coordination with TDEM district coordinators and other outside organizations and provide relief to local staff.” Musgrave stressed that before a judge requests an incident management team, he or she should assess the following:
What are their immediate needs?
What do they want they want the team to manage?
Where will the team report?
Who will the team report to?
How long will the team be needed?
The responding team needs to know what is expected of them and for how long. They also need to know where they are going to live and work. And most critically, the team needs to know who to report to. The team needs to know exactly who to take direction from and where the buck stops.
As a major cog in the administrative machine, once the team arrives, the team leader will meet with the chief elected official to develop a letter of expectation which will outline the team’s mission, the goals and objectives, reporting requirements and the financial restrictions. Potential problems will also be discussed so the teams know of problems with stakeholders, landowners and citizen groups.
Musgraves closed his presentation by telling the judges that a primary driver for the creation of the IMTs was so that, in a disaster, the chief elected official can focus on the continuity of the county government, interfacing with county commissioners and city governments within the county and dealing with the “big picture local, state and federal issues that won’t take a pause for you deal with your local catastrophe.”
For more information on the Texas Forest Service resources, All-Hazard Type 3 Incident Management Teams, or the National Incident Management System requirements and training for county officials, please contact .