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Harris County Fire Marshal

The state of the county 2019

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has a lot of accomplishments to tout.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County in the past year has made significant progress on flood control, criminal justice and improving public health, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her first State of the County address Friday.

The county executive also announced her administration would make significant investments in early childhood development in the coming year.

Hidalgo said the Houston area continues to enjoy a bustling economy and low unemployment, but said business and government leaders must not be complacent.

“To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century job market, a low unemployment rate doesn’t mean much,” Hidalgo said at the annual luncheon, held this year at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel downtown. “To a family who struggles, a great medical center can’t help them if they don’t have health insurance.”

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She lauded a historic settlement to reform the county’s bail system for misdemeanor defendants, which a federal judge had declared unconstitutional. Hidalgo thanked Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has long been an advocate on criminal justice issues.

She noted that in response to a series of chemical fires in east Harris County, Commissioners Court significantly increased the size of the pollution control and fire marshal’s offices, as well as purchased new air monitors.

“We’ve established the most robust environmental policy that Harris County has seen in at least 30 years,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo thanked the county’s flood control district and engineering department for speeding up work on the $2.5 billion flood infrastructure program and fast-tracking drainage projects in 105 subdivisions.

She also said her office has made county government more transparent by holding a series of town halls, developing a 311 call system and making a greater effort to include the public at more open, albeit lengthy, Commissioners Court meetings. Hidalgo said to date, four times as many residents have participated than last year.

You can see a copy of Judge Hidalgo’s prepared remarks here. I like the way she addressed the “concerns” some people had about her age, noting that the legendary Judge Roy Hofheinz was three years younger than she was when he was first elected. I think she has a lot to be proud of, and there’s clearly a lot more she has in mind to do. I’m looking forward to it. The Texas Signal has more.

Commissioners Court gets more aggressive on environmental enforcement

Good.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to hire 61 employees across three departments in a bid to significantly boost Harris County’s ability to respond to environmental emergencies after finding numerous shortcomings in its efforts to manage three chemical fires near the Houston Ship Channel this spring.

The $11.6 million investment will go toward purchasing new equipment and add employees to the fire marshal’s office, pollution control and public health departments. It is the most aggressive effort yet by the new Democrat-controlled court, which took office in January, to grow the emergency response infrastructure in the county, home to the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found that the staffing levels of the three departments have for decades failed to keep pace with the growth of commercial activity along the Houston Ship Channel. Previous Commissioners Courts had not acted with the same sense of urgency after chemical incidents; the county never replaced the Pollution Control employees laid off during the Great Recession. Instead, court members prided themselves on finishing fiscal years with a large fund balance.

“All these resources we’re bringing to the table, after a careful analysis … will help us be in a much better position in the future,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose Precinct 2 included the sites of each of the chemical fires in March and April.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hailed the budget increases as the most significant investment in environmental protection the county has made in 30 years. Hidalgo said she was pleased the new monitors, for example, will allow the county to test air quality on a regular basis, in addition to during emergencies.

A report on the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co. released on July 29 concluded the county needed more equipment and manpower to monitor pollution and keep the public informed about safety risks. The 133-page “gap analysis” made a total of 49 recommendations.

Two days later, a fire at an Exxon plant in Baytown injured 37 workers.

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Court members unanimously approved the budget increases for Pollution Control and the fire marshal’s office. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack was the lone opponent to increasing the size of the health department.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad most of the votes were unanimous – I mean, I don’t even know what the counter arguments are for this – but it’s still the leadership of the new Court that made this possible. Going forward let’s be more proactive so there will (one hopes) be less to have to react to.

Study shows a lot of gaps in Harris County’s ability to respond to chemical fires

This quantifies what was painfully apparent in recent months.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More monitoring and manpower is needed for Harris County to better respond to chemical fires like the three that struck the region earlier this year, worrying residents and shutting the Houston Ship Channel, according to a study evaluating the county’s response to the fires.

The most critical response gap identified involved staffing in the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, where another 16 hazardous materials technicians — at a cost of $1.6 million annually — are needed to bring the team up to compliance with national standards. Other recommendations include real-time monitoring of air, soil and water conditions, along with the training and resources necessary to share that information among the various departments — and the public — during a potential catastrophe.

”This is an example of us recognizing the county is not where it needs to be,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday, noting the need for better information sharing with the public.

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In all, the report by PENTA Consortium, a private consultant hired by the county, lists 49 recommendations for the commissioners’ court to consider, broken down by issues that need immediate attention and those that should be reviewed longer term.

Some of the recommendations involve little or no additional funding, such as pushing for local authorities to have more active participation within a unified command after an incident; appointing a senior advisor for emergency management for the county judge’s office; and tasking departments to take comprehensive looks at their internal decision-making authorities and processes.

Others require a heftier investment.

Elena Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, said she was encouraged by some of the recommendations.

“I think initially some of the gaps seemed like no-brainers,” she said, adding that “having a comprehensive assessment of where those gaps are and a time frame, essentially a road map, of how to fill these gaps was obviously needed.”

The 133-page report is referred to as “gap analysis” because it is aimed at allowing an outside consultant to find areas of improvement or failures in current policies. In addition to staffing shortages, lack of coordination among the local emergency responders also hampered the response to the fires, which sent plumes of black smoke into the region, the study found.

We’ve talked about Harris County’s non-hurricane disaster preparedness before, and I’m glad to see the county is returning to the subject. Hurricane preparedness is vital, of course, but I think we can all agree that chemical fires happen a lot more often. All of the things they are talking about in this story are necessary, and we’ll be much better off when we have a firmer handle on them.