RED OAK — Hurricane Harvey caused widespread damage across south Texas, leaving both residents and first responders in need of a helping hand.
While relief work and rescues were captured on camera, those efforts would not have been possible without coordination behind the scenes.
Red Oak Fire Chief Eric Thompson is one of many first responders that acted in a support role during the storm for the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System. The Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System is maintained by the Texas A&M Forest Service and one of its functions is to mobilize first responders and their equipment during large-scale emergencies.
Thompson served as one of the branch coordinators, with an area that encompassed 33 counties worth of resources.
“Our responsibility as branch coordinators is to know all of the municipalities that are interested in participating in the TIFMAS program, their resources, and their credentials. In order to participate the personnel and the department has to obtain certain credentials and certain training,” Thompson said. “Anytime we deploy it is a major incident and it is something very significant. We want to make sure that everyone is properly trained, have the proper equipment and know what they are getting themselves into.”
Thompson stated that when a large incident happens everyone wants to help, but sometimes that is not the best plan. The system also ensures the people who are properly trained and prepared are the first to respond to the situation to ensure the safety of all involved.
When a request for assistance comes in, the state coordinator for TFIMA is contacted. He then reaches out to the branch coordinators to see how to respond to the requests.
“Depending on what the request is, it may be a strike team of fire engines, sometimes its brush trucks or rescue boats. It just kind of depends on what the need is. It is then my responsibility to reach out to people in my branch to say, ‘ok I got to send five strike teams of fire engines to go to the coast,’” Thompson explained. “A strike team consists of five apparatus and a leader. So it is 22 people per strike team. I know that in the North Branch we sent about eight strike teams out of our branch for the initial wave. As the incident grew and the storm made landfall more requests started to come in.”
Thompson stated that before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, several teams of first responders were stationed in San Antonio. He explained that staging near the affected areas allowed for a quicker response to help people when calls came in for assistance.
As the scale of the incident’s response grew, Thompson was deployed on Sept. 4 to the Texas A&M Forrest Service’s Emergency Operations Center in College Station to begin coordinating resources. Before deployment, Thompson worked in Red Oak coordinating resources with Red Oak Deputy Fire Chief Ben Blanton and people with from Lake Cities, Frisco, and Southlake.
“The state coordinator was in there initially. He needed a break, so I rotated down and relieved him. During my week there I was responsible for all the coordination of TIFMAS for the whole incident. That was about 35 strike teams and about 800 people,” Thompson recalled. “The incident was from Corpus Christi all the way to Louisiana at that point. The whole incident then went from an emergency response to a more of a supportive role to a recovery.”
He explained that after the initial emergency surge was over the mission was then to help local fire departments with TIFMAS resources and local governments get up and running again.
Thompson stated he is grateful for the tremendous response from firefighters around the state who came to the need of their fellow Texans.
“We had zero outside state fire mutual aid requests to respond to this incident. The state of Texas 100 percent took care of all fire mutual aid. The only out of state assistance that we had come in were search and rescue teams to support Texas Taskforce One and incident management teams that helped the local governments,” Thompson said. “Through the storm and right after the storm (we) were inundated with phone calls from other states at the state level asking ‘what resources do you need fire wise?’ and the answer was zero. They couldn’t believe that we were able to do this. We were able to do this because what we learned from Katrina is we needed a system such as TIFMAS to be self-supportive and self-sustaining during times like this. So through the TIFMAS program, it worked exactly according as planned.”
Thompson continued stating there were some small problems but that is going to happen with any large-scale incident but no major problems. He classifies the response as “not textbook, but it was pretty darn close.”
Thompson and other emergency responders have assessed all the damage to the coast and identified fire stations that are not operable or where residents are without fire protection services.
"There are about 60 fire departments that are affected. If a city does not have resources we have a group of folks that are trying to help to find resources that can be either be donated to them or leased to them. We are trying to help them get back in service,” Thompson said. “Another thing that we are doing is we are working with the U.S. Fire Administration out of Washington DC and FEMA and we are writing a very comprehensive report on how to rebuild the Texas Fire Service and also how to be more resilient and prepared for the next one.”
Thompson shared that one of the ways area fire departments can help fellow first responders is through the Forrest Service’s Helping Hands Program.
According to the Forest Service’s website, the Helping Hands Program allows donations of gently-used fire/rescue equipment, fire trucks, and other items to be made available to fire departments throughout the state while providing liability relief to the donor.
“The program routinely receives donations in the way of structural gear, fire hoses, nozzles, rescue tools, ladders, ventilation fans and other items that are essential to the operation of a fire department,” the website stated. “Since 1997, the Helping Hands Program has received more than $40.5 million in donated equipment.”
Thompson is still coordinating resources in south Texas that is handling normal day to day calls such as fires, auto accidents, and medical. The goal is to have basic fire service back to affected communities by Oct. 6.
Thompson thanked not only the people that went out on deployment but also the people who stepped up at the department to serve residents here in the city, family members and the City of Red Oak for its continued support.