Austin-Travis County publishes 100+ recommendations to prevent another winter storm fallout

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Travis County officials released its “after-action” report outlining what went wrong during February’s winter storms, as well as more than 100 recommendations for improving its emergency planning and response system for future events.

The report is based on dozens of meetings with nearly 200 stakeholders including city, county and state staff who were involved in the storm response, as well as document review. It covers six areas: leadership and coordination, food, water, shelter, health and medical and transportation.

The report identifies target deadlines to fix issues of the immediate (within four months), short-term (within six to eight months), medium-term (within 18 months) and long-term (within three years).

Changes expected within four months include for Austin Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Travis County Office of Emergency Management to find a platform that would help leaders prioritize resource requests.

“For example, consider evaluating software tracking options for resource requests, and test given proper use cases,” the report reads.

The report also recommends the Austin Equity Office now be formally included in emergency operations, saying leaders need to ensure resources get to those who need them most, first.

“Additional considerations for older adults, residents with access and functional needs, and residents without access to transportation should be taken into account when providing services,” it states.

Communication

Jacquee Oakes says she was lucky to have an SUV during the storm and was able to get resources like food and water for some of her other neighbors.

“There was a lot of miscommunication, and it was hard to get resources to those that needed it,” said Oakes, who lives in Austin.

The report identifies communication as a major area of improvement — within agencies, with community groups responding to the disaster and with the public.

The report suggests being more proactive in communicating, especially to vulnerable populations like older Austinites. That includes monitoring social media to respond to the community’s needs.

“I believe there was some lack of situational awareness in the [Emergency Operations Center] between volunteer groups and some of the boots in the field,” said Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.

Nicks says the EOC didn’t quite understand what his group needed as they tried to rescue people, find them shelter and deliver water.

“Like for instance, one point EMS decided to not do lower priority calls, and we just started picking them up automatically with no decision being made. And that stretched us even further,” he explained.

The report suggests coming up with best practices for integrating community groups like his in emergency response operations.

“A lot of people survived, because their neighbors were simply out helping each other… we need to learn as emergency responders how to dovetail into that better,” he said, adding the best way to do that is for the EOC to speak with first responders who were on the ground.

Each of the 132 recommendations has a lead and secondary agency assigned to it, so they’ll start figuring out what they have to do to implement these suggestions.

Those could be policy changes or require large capital improvement projects, a spokesperson for the city said.

Training

The report found several city departments don’t have an updated emergency operation plan or don’t have one at all, suggesting documents and training material be easily accessible and training exercises be developed.

That includes inexperienced staff driving in ice and snow conditions.

Equipment

The report found “numerous” city departments didn’t have enough access to tire chains, broadband, food, water and other resources during their response.

“Firefighters didn’t have water and food, and some stations were pretty remote,” Nicks said. “When you have boots on the ground, you’ve got to keep them fed and watered. You’ve got to keep them warm. You’ve got to have electricity for them. So these are real, basic needs you need to have an emergency infrastructure to keep the citizens safe.”

Some essential personnel also didn’t have a reliable hotspot or backup communication. Report authors suggest assigning disaster response phones.

It also found in some cases, “generators failed or were inoperable at fire stations due to poor maintenance.”

Those are also things Nicks found in AFA’s after-action report.

“We found out that we had a plethora of issues with our generators. Some didn’t work at all, some started and stopped, some did not supply the correct circuits to the station,” he said.

Both Nicks and Oakes are hopeful change will come.

“I put more faith in most, in our city council and our government, to pick up that slack and hear the voices of the people and know that it can’t happen again. And I do feel like they are going to be better prepared for this go around,” said Oakes.

The report does address some strengths of Austin-Travis County’s response to the historic storms, saying despite staffing gaps, many city and county staff members “dedicated countless hours to the response,
often with little access to sufficient rest or resources, to serve and address community needs.”

The report also highlights county departments, including the Travis County Department of Transportation and Natural Resources, Public Information Office and Office of County Judge in providing services and information to people in remote areas.

Austin Energy and Austin Water also published their own of their own studies of internal challenges during the winter storm.

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