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Becoming crisis ready

County ramps up social media presence to help prepare for emergencies

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Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:48 pm

Instructional online videos, Twitter discussions, Facebook posts and Pinterest placements — all are efforts by Williamson County’s Office of Emergency Management to help residents prepare for the worst.

Whether it is tornadoes, flooding, wildfires or train derailments, the county’s OEM wants the community to be informed and ready to ride out any wave of disaster, says Mackenzie Kelly, an emergency management technician who is helping spread the word through a variety of media channels during September, the official month of emergency preparedness.

Under the umbrella of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Williamson County is one of more than 3,000 organizations nationwide working together to raise awareness about what to do if disaster strikes.

“We are preparing for emergences every day at the Williamson County OEM,” Kelly said. “Really, every single day we want to get information out about how to prepare. Being prepared to us means getting a kit, making a plan, being informed and getting involved.”

The 26-year-old Williamson County native has a passion, she said, for preparing youth for emergencies and getting them involved in community response initiatives because children often effectively deliver messages to the entire family.

As a teenager, Kelly participated in a youth training program, then became a volunteer firefighter in Jollyville after high school graduation and before going to work in the training division of the Round Rock Fire Department. All of these experiences helped her prepare for her current post with the OEM, she said.

Connecting and Preparing

the Community

In particular, Kelly is helping the county reach a broader audience and younger demographic through social media outlets.

A weekly video series this month may be found on the agency’s Facebook page (facebook.com/preparingwilco). It uses a friendly character, “Professor Puppet,” to give children and families advice on how to create an emergency kit and draft a family plan, for example.

Proving Pinterest is not just for knitting advice and wedding planning, the OEM has posted photos of sample emergency kits for home and automobiles at pinterest.com/preparingwilco.

Then, on Sept. 28, an interactive Twitter (@preparingwilco) discussion will start at 2 p.m., and the chat later will be posted on Facebook.

Communicating with residents through these different avenues is essential, as is staying informed during an emergency — one of the major challenges the county attempts to address. For example, what happens if the Internet goes down or cell phone lines are blocked during a disaster?

“We use a layered approach to communication during an emergency,” Kelly said. “So we try to hit every area that might be available.”

Turn on the television or A.M. radio if it’s available, she said. Limit cell phone use and register for Reverse 911 messaging where available.

“We suggest in an emergency when cell phone lines are overwhelmed with traffic, that you text to let somebody know you’re okay or about your situation, rather than pick up the phone to call because that lessens the amount of traffic,” Kelly said. “If there is a grave emergency, we’ll put out a Reverse 911 call on our emergency notification system.”

Last year’s wildfires in Leander, for example, prompted a Reverse 911 call from the county to residents in that area.

“We only call individuals when there is imminent danger to their life,” she said. “So, if it’s a grave emergency and they need to evacuate, they need to listen to the information we give them on the call and they need to get out.”

Knowing the

Local Threats

Since 1953, Texas has had more presidentially declared disasters than any state, Kelly said.

“Understanding what disasters can affect us directly can help us become more resilient.... The more educated the community is, the more resilient it can be,” she said.

The Texas Forest Service has reported that in the last five years, 831 wildfires have burned in Williamson County, consuming a total of 5,668 acres and threatening or causing evacuation of more than 800 homes. And, in 2010 alone, more than 650 homes were damaged or destroyed by flash floods, according to the OEM.

Weather and wildfire threats are at the top of the list for types of emergencies that could affect this area of the county, according to Taylor Fire Chief Pat Ekiss.

“Taylor does not experience the same [wildfire] problems that we do on the west end of the county where we have a lot of what’s known as urban interface,” Ekiss said. “But we do have open agricultural land where the wind blows non-stop. So, certainly, a running fire is of big concern to us.”

Ekiss said the department filed this week for a Wildlands Certification from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection after the entire Taylor Fire Department crew completed extensive classroom and field training recognized by the Texas Forest Service.

“We believe we have addressed much of [the wildfire threat] in the implementation of our new brush trucks, and also extensive training that is recognized by the Texas Forest Service,” Ekiss said. “We’re aggressively trying to meet those demands and to acquire the training necessary to mitigate those types of emergencies.”

The Taylor Fire Department is one of the few trained across the board, with everyone — from the chief to the newest member of the crew — attaining the certification, he said.

For south central Williamson County, the Union Pacific rail line that runs along U.S. Hwy. 79 is a major consideration in planning for emergency responses. Derailments and hazardous materials spills could create disastrous situations leading to evacuations, officials have said.

In Taylor last month, two train derailments near the fire station were exacerbated by an unrelated hazardous chemical threat — all of which took place within less than 24 hours, Ekiss said.

“We just had a large-scale hazardous materials incident here that required the response of first-responders from all over the county,” Ekiss said.

About 47 emergency services personnel from the across the county and even Pflugerville helped respond to the local situation.

The chemical threat was not rail-related, but rather was a non-fatal, bleach substance found leaking at a local business.

“Turns out it was not as bad as we thought it could have been,” Ekiss said. “Our training really paid off.”

A quick, easy way for Taylor-area residents to sign up for the Reverse 911 system, he said, is through the city’s website at www.ci.taylor.tx.us. From the home page, select “Emergency Notification Subscriber Service” under the “Resident” tab.

Getting Involved

After assembling an emergency kit, drafting a family plan and becoming informed, the county’s Office of Emergency Management suggests residents get involved.

This means getting to know your neighbors, spreading the message of preparedness and serving the community, Kelly said.

Teens are invited to learn more about being prepared for an emergency through the new Teen CERT/Youth Preparedness Program that targets youth who are highly effective messengers for reaching and influencing parents and other adults, she said. The training teaches readiness and response skills through hands-on practice and realistic exercises to prepare for the unexpected.

Anyone interested in the class should contact Mackenzie Kelly at (512) 943-3839 and a course may be offered in the eastern part of Williamson County next year if there is enough interest.

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