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Emergency planners examine resources, training opportunities

Texas Department of Emergency Management representative Michelle Huckabee addresses the Nov. 14 meeting of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee in Cotulla.
By Marc Robertson
Reminding her audience of energy industry stakeholders, responders and community leaders that it was a 1984 gas leak in India that prompted governments to work proactively in emergency preparedness, training administrator Michelle Huckabee said this week that she believes La Salle County is in a good position to respond to a disaster.

Huckabee serves the Texas Division of Emergency Management and had been invited to address members of the county’s Local Emergency Planning Committee at their quarterly meeting in Cotulla on Wednesday, November 14, giving a brief preview of a new handbook that outlines in detail how the community-based group is to be organized and the functions it performs.

The failure of several safety measures, poor maintenance and a lack of effective alarm systems were among the contributing factors in a poison gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, during the night of December 2-3, 1984, a disaster that claimed at least 4,000 lives and left more than half a million people injured. Some estimates have indicated as many as 16,000 people ultimately died from injuries directly attributable to the leak. The incident also resulted in widespread deaths of livestock and destruction of crops, disruption of vital services and food supplies, and demonstrated to the world that many communities are unprepared to handle an emergency.

Since the disaster, governments around the world have increased their vigilance of the chemical industry, including oil and gas worksites, and transport and storage of hazardous materials. At the same time, the US government has implemented requirements that state and regional governments comply with emergency planning and response guidelines, and
AirEvac Life Team program director Michal Keeton discusses the scope of his company's airlift operations to members of the La Salle County LEPC.
with a national preparedness system. Locally, this requires establishment of the emergency planning committees that now incorporate representatives of all industries in the area, fire brigades and emergency medical services, government, law enforcement, utilities and transportation, healthcare providers, schools, civic groups, and the civilian population.

La Salle County’s Local Emergency Planning Committee was established more than two years ago and complies with all the guidelines established by the state. Huckabee said she believes La Salle County’s LEPC will be able to identify all potential threats to lives and property and has brought together the principal stakeholders with informative meetings, updates on training opportunities, grants and other funding for new resources in emergency response, and fostered open communications between the energy industry and the community.

“You have worked hard for your community,” Huckabee told the LEPC members. “There are more than forty courses available through grants that will help your public and private sectors in disaster preparedness.”

The Texas Division of Emergency Management provides access to training in hazardous materials handling, storage and emergency response; certification in a range of services can be applied nationally and covers fire and EMS, law enforcement, arson investigation, hazardous materials, pipeline safety and other topics related to the energy industry over the Eagle Ford Shale. Funding can also be provided to cover travel and lodging expenses for agencies sending their representatives to other cities for training, Huckabee said.  

Travis County Fire Chief Don Smith, who has provided consultation services to La Salle County through Soteria Solutions for the past four years, told LEPC members that the state’s resources will be of great advantage to local agencies.

“We take it literally that we are the hub of the Eagle Ford Shale,” Chief Smith said on Wednesday, “and we look to providing training for all agencies and stakeholders in the region. We can now do that through the Texas Department of Emergency Management.”

Smith noted later in the meeting that a tabletop training exercise hosted by the LEPC in August served well to prepare emergency responders for incidents that occurred during the following weeks, including a gas leak, a diesel fuel spill, an oil spill, and a series of fatal traffic accidents.
Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Daniel Mendez said La Salle County has witnessed four fatal traffic accidents in a three-week period, a statistic that he believes is indicative of increased activity in the Eagle Ford region. Each of the crashes, he said, involved collisions with freight trucks.

A further presentation was made Wednesday by Michael Keeton, program director for AirEvac Life Team (Methodist AirCare) at its Pearsall station, from which helicopters are deployed regionally. Keeton previously served at the Del Rio helicopter base and noted that La Salle County presently ranks second in the number of calls for emergency airlifts. The company provides South Texas coverage from additional bases in Laredo, Carrizo Springs, McAllen, San Antonio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Jourdanton. The Frio County helicopter base will soon be moved from McKinley Field to a newly designated landing site at Frio Regional Hospital on the outskirts of Pearsall, Keeton said.

“We have the most helicopters in South Texas,” Keeton added. “We are here to serve the community.”

Keeton cautioned energy industry representatives at the LEPC meeting that no helicopter emergency medical evacuation can be provided without dispatch from the 911 service and advised all companies who may have private agreements for ‘med-evac’ flights that they must first notify local emergency responders of their need before expecting an airlift.

The Air Evac Life Team director noted that his service was able to provide eight helicopters for airlifts from a recent emergency in Dimmit County, when a dozen people were seriously injured. He said his company takes pride in knowing its territory and being able to respond in a crisis.

“We know the landing zones,” Keeton said. “We have a strong presence in the communities we serve.”

Additional information provided to LEPC members at the Nov. 14 meeting included a statement from the La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS, medic director Cindy Williams announcing that a new ambulance has been put into service and that all responders are bracing for a winter season in which inclement weather may affect response times and prevent airlifts.

Williams added a plea to all energy industry representatives that emergency calls giving locations of the injured be as specific as possible, to avoid delays. In some cases, she said, injured workers have been transported by privately owned vehicles from a jobsite to a ranch gate or nearby intersection to meet an ambulance, but “we are in a white pickup truck” may be inadequate information. She asked that companies familiarize themselves with road names, distances and other helpful information to identify a location to the emergency dispatcher.

Cotulla Airport Director ET Page, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter, said he believes there is growing concern among area landowners over the presence of low-flying aircraft in the Eagle Ford Shale region. In most cases, he said, oil and gas companies conducting overflights for inspections of pipelines and other installations have not notified landowners and outlying residents of their intentions. Page said the uncertainty and lack of proper identification in overflights has raised concerns over intrusion, spying and illegal activity.

Page said he hopes the LEPC will address issues related to low-flying aircraft (including helicopter, fixed-wing and unmanned drone) at an upcoming meeting.  

Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals, who chairs the La Salle County LEPC, reiterated a request that all companies operating in the region ensure the 1-800 telephone numbers posted at their installations be accurate. Emergency calls at any hour “need to go to the right office,” he said, in order that the relevant personnel be notified promptly in the event of an accident.

Dr. Seals said he believes the encouraging reports from presenters and committee members are a sign of progress in emergency preparedness.

“We don’t want to forget where we came from,” the chairman said. “We began with volunteer emergency responders, local firefighters. Our own community members were involved in this. They gave selflessly of their time and effort for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
“Remind your crews to be safe,” Dr. Seals said at the close of the committee meeting. “Remind them not to drive fatigued. Talk to your people. We don’t need any more fatalities.”

Topics for discussion or presentation at upcoming LEPC meetings will include pipeline patrols, drone aircraft, cooperative agreements for firefighting operations, Cotulla Airport operations, brush fire scenarios, flooding and flood-prone areas of the county, and the interaction between wildlife hunting and the energy industry.

The next meeting of the La Salle County LEPC will be held at noon on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, in the Emergency Operations Center on Mars Drive in the Las Palmas business park beside IH-35 in Cotulla. Lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m., sponsored by the AirEvac Life Team. The meal for the Nov. 14 meeting was provided by the Las Palmas Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and the First Baptist Church of Cotulla.

Honoring those who served...

La Salle unveils new veterans' plaques for courthouse

By Marc Robertson
Veterans of the US armed forces from La Salle County who served during World War II, the Korean conflict and in the Vietnam era have been memorialized in bronze for public recognition in the hallways of the county courthouse, following the unveiling on Sunday, November 11, of new plaques that have been approved for display by the Texas Historical Commission.

The ceremony at which community members were given a first glimpse of the county’s new veterans’ memorial was held in front of the courthouse on Veterans Day, an event that included addresses by Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia, County Judge Joel Rodriguez, and guest speaker and La Salle County native US Air Force Major General James Hinkel (Retd.), along with elected officials and those responsible for the memorial.

Leading the project to reinstate a veterans’ memorial in the county courthouse was Leodoro Martinez, a former county judge and head of the Middle Rio Grande Development Council, who said the effort had taken a number of years and involved community outreach to ensure that as many armed forces veterans as possible were included.

Memorial plaques that had hung in the county courthouse first-floor hallways were not only incomplete but failed to comply with the Texas Historical Commission’s rule that no alterations be made to the historic integrity of the building. The courthouse was returned to its original 1931 appearance at the expense of several million dollars – the most spent on a single project in the state’s historic courthouse restoration program – but did not include a war memorial in its design. Martinez said that a lengthy application process to the historical commission for inclusion of an appropriate veterans’ memorial was eventually approved and triggered the project to replace the earlier displays. Instead of engraved wood and other materials, however, the new memorial is cast in bronze. Its design has likewise been approved by the state agency responsible for the courthouse restoration expenditure, although the plaque itself was paid for locally.

Martinez said at least 277 names have been added to the memorials since the earlier plaques were removed from the courthouse and that they now include 1,011 local residents who served their country in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Names of those who have been omitted may be added in future, he said.

Local armed forces veterans of the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts may expect to see their names added to new plaques in future. The Texas Historical Commission’s approval of the bronze memorial was contingent in part on the passage of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War, considered by many historians to be marked by an incident between Communist forces and US patrol vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire armistice between the United Nations and Communist forces of North Korea and China after three years of hostilities in 1953, although a peace agreement has never been signed. World War II ended with the German and Japanese unconditional surrenders, both of which occurred in 1945.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, when Communist forces of North Vietnam supplied through neighboring Laos and Cambodia attacked US bases across South Vietnam; and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the armistice signing in the Forest of Compeigne outside Paris, establishing a ceasefire to take effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

La Salle County residents have also served their country in other conflicts, including the Spanish-American War and World War I; and in Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Serbia, Lebanon, Somalia, at flashpoints in the Cold War, including occupied Europe; and remain stationed in Western Europe, the Middle East, and at bases across the Pacific on Guam and Okinawa, and along the 38th Parallel in South Korea.

Maj. Gen. Hinkel noted in his address that all those who serve their country are to be commended, and gave examples of incidents in the Afghan conflict at which the US military overcame great odds to defeat Taliban forces as indicative of the American resolve to fight for freedom wherever its military may be called, and to defend the rights and liberties of the oppressed.

Both Mayor Garcia and County Judge Rodriguez extended thanks to all who have served their country and to those who helped make the new historic memorial possible.

Also in attendance at Sunday’s event with scores of armed forces veterans and their families were members of the US Border Patrol, who presented colors; and representatives of city and county government, law enforcement, the school district, community organizations and churches. A barbecue luncheon was served by county staff after the ceremony.     
(Front, L-R) Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia, Maj. Gen. James Hinkel, County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Leodoro Martinez, (Back, L-R) County Commissioners Noel Niavez, Erasmo Ramirez and Jack Alba. 

Minute by minute...

The La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee hosted a tabletop exercise in the Emergency Operations Center in Cotulla on Wednesday afternoon, August 8, involving the energy industry, emergency responders, law enforcement and support services in a response drill for an incident at a well on a jobsite one mile northwest of Cotulla. The exercise served to bring together all those who play a critical role in the initial response, assessment and containment of a spill or leak, including the energy industry itself, local government, transportation, specialty response services, state and federal authorities, and local organizations, emergency dispatchers and communications. Factors involved in the tabletop drill included establishing an
exclusion zone, assessing weather conditions, direction of any airborne chemicals, determining whether all persons in the immediate vicinity of the incident are accounted for, extraction of any injured, setting up muster sites, an incident command station and an emergency medical station for decontamination, organizing area evacuation, and responding to public and media inquiry through a single point of contact. Contributing information in the drill were Mark Mollman of Chesapeake Energy (Photo above) and Chief Daniel Mendez of the La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS (Above right) as the first responder. The event was coordinated by Michelle Joseph and Chief Don Smith of Soteria Solutions and included an opportunity for participants to provide input on strengths and weaknesses they perceived in the disaster response and management.

Be alert, know the signs...

Counterfeit currency detected in South Texas

By Marc Robertson
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office is echoing an alert this week from Stockmens National Bank in Cotulla regarding what may be a fresh surge in the amount of counterfeit currency circulating in the area.

Posting on social media Wednesday, July 25, bank representatives noted that staff have identified some counterfeit bills that were passed in the community and added a list of precautions all area residents should take and indicators people should heed when accepting paper currency.

“Please inspect bills carefully,” the bank noted in its post. “If they appear to be very thin, taped together or tear very easily, use caution.”

The bank is asking that anyone who discovers a counterfeit bill bring it to the bank on Main Street in downtown Cotulla or report the finding immediately to the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.

La Salle Sheriff’s Investigator Homar Olivarez said on Friday that it is vital to a successful investigation that anyone who discovers a counterfeit bill report it as soon as possible in order to help officers trace its origins. Businesses and area residents alike are being encouraged to keep track of who may have passed the currency to them and should document any further helpful information for investigators.

All businesses are being reminded to issue detector pens to their cashiers, to train employees in how to detect counterfeit currency and not to rely on what may appear as previous detector pen strokes on the money, as those may likewise have been forged.

All US bills are printed on a fabric-and-paper blend that is recognizable by its strength and by the durability of its ink. The material contains extremely small fibers that may appear red or blue to the naked eye. All US paper currency carries an embedded watermark; recently issued high-value bills are now recognizable by a distinctive blue ribbon of vertical stripes that feel smooth to the touch and have an advanced 3-D printed image reflecting the face value of the bill.

Since earlier counterfeiting practices included printing higher values onto low-denomination bills that had been bleached of their ink, some detection practices will indicate that the currency is valid. In those cases, cashiers should observe poor print quality on the bills, missing details, incorrect watermarks or security ribbons, misalignment of the images on front and back of the currency, and in some cases poorly reproduced artwork and lettering.

Cashiers are also advised to observe unusual or suspicious behavior in those passing high-value currency ($20 and up), including apparent urgency or impatience, argumentative demeanor, partial concealment or folding of paper currency, and the use of large-denomination bills for small purchases.

All area residents are urged to inspect their own currency and to report any suspicious bills immediately to the bank or sheriff’s office.

Presentation by Plains All American...

Emergency planners share resources, education

Frio County Emergency Management Coordinator Ray Kallio of Dilley (left) shares on-screen information on the Tier II hazardous materials reporting system with Cotulla ISD Superintendent Dr. Jack Seals and Texas DPS Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez, executive board members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee at their quarterly meeting on Wednesday, May 9.
By Marc Robertson
The availability of training courses on new emergency planning software, an outline of the work done by one of the continent’s largest oil and gas carriers, and requirements for reporting hazardous chemicals storage topped the agenda for the Wednesday, May 9, meeting of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The lunchtime meeting at the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Mars Drive in Cotulla was attended by representatives of the energy industry, emergency responders from the La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS, the Sheriff’s Office and Texas Department of Public Safety, healthcare and social services providers, and representatives of Cotulla ISD and local businesses, city and county government, and community organizations and churches.

Speaking on behalf of Plains All American Pipeline, spokesperson Brian Ford gave a presentation in which he showed the scope of the company’s reach across the United States and Canada, including more than 20,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline, moving as much as 56 million gallons of product per day. Ford also noted that the “midstream” operations by the company are focused primarily on the transport and storage of energy resources after they leave the well and before they reach the refinery.

“Pipelines are the safest means of transporting oil,” Ford said, adding that the lines operated by Plains All American are monitored continually for their integrity, including compliance with all state and federal standards, and are routinely inspected from the air, on the ground and by remotely operated devices for their condition - including any damage or corrosion - capacity and grade of content.

Ford noted that the company founded in 1981 operates out of a headquarters and central monitoring station in Midland, Texas, although Plains All American pipeline offices can be found across the US and Canada. The control station at Midland, he said, is capable of tracking all material being moved or stored by Plains and expects to be able to identify “where any batch of product is at any time.”

Plains also maintains a roster of over 800 railroad tank cars and a road haulage fleet of trucks, employing 850 commercially licensed drivers in 17 states, and delivers fuel to more than 400 oil and gas facilities daily. Plains All American also maintains storage facilities for up to 125 million barrels of oil and monitors all of its assets 24 hours a day from Midland.

“When in doubt, shut it down,” Ford said is a mantra and operations model followed by all Plains employees and that operational safety is paramount to the company’s continued success. Training in all aspects of safety and accident prevention, materials handling and emergency response is made available continually to all employees, he said. Furthermore, educational information is offered by mail to all residents and businesses within five miles of a Plains pipeline. Information mailed to all those near a pipeline includes its location, hazard awareness and tips on emergency preparedness.

Damage to oil and gas pipelines is caused primarily by earthmoving and other operations related to farming and construction, according to Ford, and also most likely to occurs when proper pipeline identification measures are not followed accurately. In some cases, he said, pipelines are buried a mere 36 inches below the surface while in others they may be exposed due to soil erosion. In one example of an accidental pipeline strike, Ford indicated a farmer had caused damage to a buried line with a tractor, had noticed strong fumes in the area and only reported the incident the following day upon discovering the extent of the damage and a leak that had caused oil to pool on his property.

“We ask everyone to check for pipeline locations before working,” Ford said on behalf of Plains All American, adding that any damage or leak should be reported immediately through the emergency contact number posted at sites along the line. A national mapping system, he said, enables the public to view all pipelines in the area but should not be used as a substitute for calling before digging or accurately locating the line.

“Sight, sound and smell are usually the first indicators to the public in the event of an accident,” Ford said. “You may see a leak occurring, or you may hear the hiss of gas escaping, and you may detect the smell of hydrogen sulfide, which is present in nearly all of the products we carry.”

Hydrogen sulfide, commonly known by its chemical abbreviation of H2S, is highly toxic and capable of immediately debilitating anyone who is exposed to it. At higher levels or with prolonged exposure, hydrogen sulfide is deadly. The gas is among the most common hazardous materials associated with the energy industry and its presence requires all operators to wear monitors that signal H2S exposure with an alarm.

“All cautionary measures should be taken,” he added. “Emergency responders need to be contacted immediately, and civilians need to be kept away from the site or moved out of the area altogether. The next stages in the process for the responders will be to secure the site, evaluate the situation, determine what protective gear is required, and communicate effectively with all involved parties.”

Tabletop scenarios, such as mock accident response trials and deployment of emergency services, are used in training to help prepare Plains employees as well as local fire and rescue, law enforcement and emergency response teams for hazardous materials to prepare for a live eventuality. All incidents, he said, should be handled in accordance with the statewide-published Emergency Response Guidelines, available both in book form and electronically as an application on a mobile device.

“It’s not just a matter of shutting off a valve,” Ford said of leak prevention and mitigation. “We have to ensure the safety of the general public and of emergency responders. We also require air monitoring after a spill to determine if any evacuation is necessary or if respirators will be required.”

Ford noted that cooperation between all agencies, responders and civic organizations in any area will be vital to limiting risks to public health and to the environment and will help limit the extent of the damage.

“In all situations, an emergency dispatcher provides critical, need-to-know information to the emergency responders,” he said, and concluded his presentation with a slogan that he believes represents the company’s position on safety: “An incident will not define who we are, but where we are going.”

In a brief outline of the Tier II reporting requirements, LEPC members were shown what hazardous material storage must be reported to the state and local agencies and in what quantities. According to Hoyt Henry, team leader of the reporting program at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Critical Infrastructure Division, all materials that are sufficient in small quantities to seriously maim or kill anyone coming into contact with them must be reported and fully documented, although the reporting period for all materials stored at any sites in Texas is between January and March each year for the previous calendar year. Changes to a hazardous chemicals inventory must be reported within 90 days at any time of the year, and all storage of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer base material) must be reported within 72 hours.

The fertilizer reporting requirement was mandated after an explosion on April 17, 2013, that claimed 17 lives, injured over 160 people and leveled several structures in the rural community of West, in Central Texas.

The Tier II report of all hazardous materials at any facility is designed to help emergency responders prepare for what they may encounter when approaching a site at which an accident, spill or leak may have occurred. Responders will also be able to determine which materials are not compatible with each other and may become additionally hazardous if mixed, possibly causing fire, explosion, toxic fumes or other threats to health and environment.

There is no requirement for the Tier II reporting of gasoline, diesel or propane fuel storage until those materials reach a threshold of 10,000 lbs., according to the TCEQ representative, and there are no requirements for the reporting of any commercially available foods, wood products, drugs, tobacco or cosmetics.

The state agency is presently completing its online site and reporting system and requires that all data be submitted electronically. When it is complete, the TCEQ site will become the largest chemical storage database in the nation, covering over 80,000 facilities, according to Henry.

Material submitted to the new database will be retained for thirty years and includes the site address and coordinates, whether the property or the business is subject to the Clean Air Act, and all relevant contact information for operators or those with access to the facility. Each report must include all data on the chemicals being stored at the site and the range of their quantity – the minimum and maximum amounts that may be at the site at any time – and their location on the property. Since online satellite views of some properties may be of poor resolution, Henry said, Tier II reporting should indicate which building on a site is being used for storing specific chemicals and may include a site map.

Information that energy-related industries and commercial enterprises are required to report in the Tier II system is filed not only with the TCEQ’s State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) but also the Local Emergency Planning Committee and the fire department.

“These reports are being looked at by emergency planners and response agencies,” the TCEQ team leader said. “Those people will need to know exactly where the chemicals are.”

Soteria Solutions representatives Don Smith and Michelle Joseph, who have aided La Salle County in establishing the Fire Rescue & EMS as well as the emergency planning group, outlined the Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEO) program that will be offered in software for local agencies and enables all key players to gain access to maps and complete Tier II listing as well as locally relevant information, such as the location of schools and other structures that may require evacuating in the event of an emergency. The CAMEO program, Smith said, enables local emergency responders to add weather conditions and other factors that may affect the environmental or health impact of a spill, leak, accident or fire, including the projected path of a spill or plume of a toxin in the atmosphere. The combined data, Smith said, will be vital in assessing a site, determining the possible extent of a spill, fire or explosion, and evaluating quickly what emergency resources are to be deployed.

A training course on the use of the CAMEO system will be offered June 12-14, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, at the EOC in Cotulla.

A training course on AWR-160 standardized awareness, covering the basics of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive (CBRNE) hazards and materials, prevention and deterrence methods, and the Emergency Response Guidebook, will be offered June 21, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the EOC at Cotulla.

Registration for both courses is required in advance and should be made immediately with Jose Alejandro at the Texas Department of Public Safety at (956) 489-7083.

In other business at their quarterly meeting, LEPC members approved the nominations of Shelly Ogburn to head the Healthcare & Hospital Committee, replacing Matthew Sealy, who has left his position as director of the Las Palmas Nursing & Rehabilitation Center; and of Mark Linares to the Preparedness & Shelter Committee, replacing Chad Chamness, who is leaving his position as pastor of the First United Methodist Church.

The August 8 meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee will include a tabletop workshop on an incident involving hazardous materials.
Brian Ford, representative of Plains All American Pipeline, guest presenter at the May 9 meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee in Cotulla.

"An incident will not define who we are, but where we are going..."

- Brian Ford
Plains All American Pipeline

"Those people will need to know exactly where the chemicals are..."

- Hoyt Henry
Texas Commission
on Environmental Quality
​Tier II Reporting Program

FOCUS ON SAFETY – A newly formed La Salle County courthouse security committee works to meet the requirements of Texas Senate Bill 42, aimed at improving protective measures in all of the county’s courtrooms and putting renewed emphasis on the protection of presiding judges. Present for the committee’s first meeting Thursday, April 26, were (back row, L-R) La Salle County Capt. Jose Garcia, Zavala County Bailiff Art Olivarez, La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez, La Salle County Bailiff Eddie Deleon, La Salle County Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, (front row) Estella Olivarez for the county attorney’s office, County & District Clerk Margie Esqueda, and Pct. 1, 5, 6 Justice of the Peace Vicki Rodriguez. Courtroom code of conduct, building security, judges’ escort, emergency evacuation, movement of defendants and separation of potentially violent gang affiliates were among the topics covered at the committee’s first meeting.

La Salle meets SB42, creates security committee

By Marc Robertson
Meeting the requirements of Texas Senate Bill 42, La Salle County has hosted its first meeting of a new courthouse security committee whose focus is on helping to eliminate potential threats to judges and court personnel as well as members of the public.

In approaching the wide scope of the committee’s overview, La Salle County Deputy and Court Bailiff Eddie Deleon addressed committee members Thursday, April 26, in a two-hour meeting that covered the many aspects of courthouse security, movement of detainees, and enhanced safety measures for judges.

Deleon noted that although La Salle County often earns favorable comments from visiting judges for its diligence in courthouse security, the county continues to face hurdles in its effort to minimize threats because of the constraints of working in an 87-year-old building whose historic preservation mandates restrictions on structural alterations. A single central staircase, a limited number of exits, a shortage of secure holding areas, communal hallways, and public exposure to the passage of defendants in custody are among the many features of the building that dates from a time when little thought was given to courthouse security, according to the bailiff.

Among those on the committee are representatives of local and regional government, including County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, Capt. Jose Garcia, Justice of the Peace Vicki Rodriguez, County & District Clerk Margie Esqueda, and Estella Olivarez on behalf of County Attorney Elizabeth Martinez. Present as guest on a fact-finding visit and to share information in a two-county collaboration was Zavala County Bailiff Art Olivarez. Also present at the committee’s inaugural meeting were La Salle justices of the peace George Trigo, Frank Weikel and Janie Megliorino, as well as government and law enforcement representatives.

Deleon noted that Senate Bill 42 was initiated by Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo in the wake of courthouse violence in Travis County, among other incidents involving firearms and violence in the courtroom and towards judges and court staff.

“People don’t see reason when they have to face up to their crimes by serving time in prison,” Deleon said. “They think that they can somehow take revenge or make their punishment stop if they attack the judge presiding over their case. They blame the judge for what’s happened to them.”

The La Salle County bailiff added that high-profile trials are not the only situations in which defendants, plaintiffs or members of the public may be driven to acts of violence directed at judges. Child custody hearings, divorce cases and civil cases are equally likely to elicit emotional outbursts, he said, and judges may be at risk of violence or may be targeted at any time.

La Salle County has a strict policy regarding escort and protection of court personnel and has implemented a number of orders for elevated security measures related to the entrance and exit of judges and court staff as well as defendants.

“The state has placed new emphasis on court security,” Deleon said Thursday. “We need to have something in place to meet these new demands. A lot of the changes that we are required to implement are already in place in La Salle County.”

Deleon discussed with committee members some of the challenges he and other officers should expect to face in court, among them the risk of persons carrying weapons of any kind into the courtroom, and emphasized the need for heightened security and strict adherence to the county’s code of conduct for all court proceedings, a document adopted last year and applicable to the justice of the peace and county courts as well as the 81st and 218th judicial district courts.

The bailiff also noted that officers staffing the security checkpoint at the courthouse entrance will exercise additional vigilance with regard to knives and other potential weapons and have begun keeping a daily log of the number of courthouse visitors and the number of prohibited items that have been taken from members of the public and held at the checkpoint until they leave.

State law prevents any member of the public from entering the courthouse with a firearm. Violators are subject to arrest.

Senate Bill 42 also mandates that judges’ personal information – including address and telephone numbers – be removed from public documents; and that any incident of violence in a courtroom be reported and filed within 72 hours.

“A bailiff assumes the responsibility of court security and can be called upon to serve in any courtroom or court hearing in the county,” Deleon said. “That includes justice of the peace courts. We need to have an officer available to provide security to the justices of the peace.

“Court security has gotten to the point where the bailiff is having to consider who is being placed in the courtroom,” Deleon said. “There are people coming to court who want to hurt the judges.”

He added that he believes La Salle County may learn a lesson from an incident at another courthouse in which an assailant with an assault rifle was confronted by security officers who had only been equipped with handguns.

“Be prepared for an assailant with heavier firepower,” the bailiff said.

Deleon said he expects to visit neighboring counties to discuss court security with law enforcement officials, adding that cooperation and information sharing between county governments will help all courthouses in the region meet demands for heightened security and comply with the new senate bill.

“We were ahead of the game when this bill came in,” the bailiff said. “The deadlines on some of these things have already come and gone. Some counties are falling behind on compliance.”

Sheriff Rodriguez said he believes La Salle County’s practices have become an example to others in the region.
“Eddie has done a lot for the county,” the sheriff said of Deleon’s bailiff duties. “Everyone wants his services. Deputies have to understand that we are here to protect the judge. It’s our job.”

La Salle County’s courthouse security committee is responsible for approving local policies and may make recommendations to the county commissioners’ court for the expenditure of funds related to improving courthouse security. The committee may not, however, order the expenditure or dictate budget allocations.

Committee members agreed on a policy that allows officers on security detail to search anyone entering the courthouse. County Clerk Esqueda said she believes security staff should also consider checking those leaving the building, as numerous items have been stolen.

“Every time we have court here in this building, all the toilet paper and soap and disinfectant is stolen from the restrooms,” Esqueda said. “Every time.”

Deleon said he believes all courthouse staff working in public areas of the building should ensure that desktop items that may be used as weapons should be kept out of the public’s reach. He cited an incident in which a court staff member was stabbed in the face with a pencil. In La Salle County, a defendant’s attorney recently discovered that the ink tube had been removed from his pen during the few seconds that a defendant had been left with it. The ink tube was subsequently found by a correctional officer conducting a routine search at the La Salle County Jail.  

JP Rodriguez said she believes all courthouse staff should be familiar with an emergency evacuation plan and that the county government should consider holding a drill in order to determine that the building may be emptied in a safe and timely manner.

“We have to have a plan for every eventuality,” Deleon said, adding that a fire drill may be handled differently than an incident involving firearms. “It may involve locking the courtroom door and seeking cover, but there has to be a plan. Everybody has to be working on the same page.”

Committee members expressed support for La Salle County’s enhanced security measures, including the separation of potentially violent defendants to help eliminate clashes between gang affiliates, and maintaining a log of which inmates are kept in the secure holding areas in the courthouse; upgrading security covering all deliveries to the courthouse, including those from commercial shipping companies; and making detailed reports on the nature and content of any threatening telephone call.

“These are issues that have arisen from court security, and these have been lessons learned,” Deleon said. “We can use them as the basis for policy consideration.”

The committee will meet again in October, when policy upgrades and amendments to the code of conduct may be presented for consideration.

"Be our eyes and ears..."

USBP invites support
from landowners, energy companies

Local Emergency Planning Committee meets Feb. 21
for updates on communications, disaster response

By Marc Robertson
“If you see something, say something” has become a mantra applicable to a wide range of situations, including suspicious activity in the South Texas Brush Country.

A presentation by the US Border Patrol to members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) in Cotulla on Wednesday, February 21, included a reminder that it is assistance from landowners and energy industry operators that may enable law enforcement to identify and intercept criminal activity.

USBP Ranch Liaison Agent Gilbert Avilez told his audience in the county’s Emergency Operations Center that he believes increased awareness of potential threats and indicators of illegal activity as well as stronger communication between civilians and officers will do much to enhance regional and border security, reduce crime and help in the apprehension of trespassers, property thieves, and human smugglers.

Something as often ignored as the discovery of empty water bottles along trails in the brush may be significant and may help identify routes that smugglers and other criminals have taken across private land in the past and where they are likely to repeat their journey, Avilez said, citing a recent incident that led to the apprehension of several undocumented immigrants.
US Border Patrol Ranch Liaison Agent Gilbert Avilez of the USBP Cotulla Station addresses members of the La Salle County Local Emergency Planning Committee at a meeting in the Emergency Operations Center in Cotulla on Wednesday, Feb. 21.
Although Avilez’ presentation and an accompanying government-made promotional film were geared towards ranchers and property owners in the border region, many of the elements and pieces of advice contained in them were applicable to the energy industry, the agent said. Oilfield workers and supervisors traveling to remote jobsites are likely to discover signs of criminal activity well in advance of law enforcement, he said, and should take immediate action in reporting the discoveries.

Footpaths where none should be, tire tracks that don’t relate to the energy industry or to ranch use, gates left unlocked, abandoned clothes and food wrappers, and the presence of improperly marked vehicles or signs of trespassing are all indicators that private land may be used by smugglers and by individuals looking to make use of private property or commercial goods at remote sites, Avilez said. In some cases, workers and ranch owners have been approached by strangers and asked to leave gates unlocked at specific locations or have been quizzed about law enforcement patrols, surveillance and security systems, the officer said. In other incidents, vehicles have been “cloned” to resemble oil company trucks in order to appear inconspicuous in South Texas traffic while transporting undocumented immigrants and large quantities of narcotics.

In each case, anyone noting suspicious activity or anomalies should make a report immediately, either to local law enforcement or to the US Border Patrol at its Cotulla Station by calling (210) 242-1646 or by calling the ranch liaison officer directly at (956) 285-4093. The toll-free regional number for reporting criminal activity to the US Border Patrol at the US Department of Homeland Security is 1-855-553-7902.

“We want you to be our eyes and ears across the region,” Avilez said. “Report seeing suspicious vehicles, and make a note of the type of vehicle, the make and color, the license plate, the occupants, and in what direction the vehicle was traveling, and report the location and ranch or company name, with GPS coordinates if possible.”

Avilez distributed a USBP flyer that includes the agency’s plea to the general public for assistance in intercepting criminal activity, adding a caution that smugglers and other trespassers have shown an increasing tendency to violence.

“There is an increase in activity by as much as eighteen percent,” Avilez said. “We are detecting a lot more than normal, when it comes to criminal activity, human smuggling. This includes foot traffic and persons traveling in stolen vehicles.

“The situation has changed,” the ranch liaison agent said. “The mentality has changed. The people we encounter are more prone to violence. You have to be extra cautious with anyone you encounter. They are more likely to become violent when there is any disruption to their business.”

Avilez cited a recent incident in which a truck driver was assaulted by smugglers at a remote site and, although the driver escaped serious injury, law enforcement agents were unable to find those responsible.

“Don’t take it for granted that you won’t encounter them,” Avilez said. “They’re out there. From now until May is regarded as the busy season, before it slows down again due to the heat. We are getting reports of vehicles cutting through ranches, and of break-ins at houses and other structures. They’re looking for food, but they are also stealing weapons.”

The USBP is reporting that while the majority of undocumented immigrants apprehended in South Texas are Mexican nationals, agents have identified increasing numbers of other nationalities among those entering the United States illegally, including citizens of South American, Asian and Arab countries.

The USBP Cotulla Station oversees a patrol area of 6,000 square miles of South Texas Brush Country.

“Whatever help you can give us is appreciated,” the agent said. “We can check it out. Even if you just want to report finding water bottles out there, it’s a great help for you to reach out to us.”

In other business at their quarterly meeting, members of the LEPC heard updates from law enforcement, emergency responders, the energy industry and the Department of Public Safety as well as from local representatives responsible for medical services, emergency shelter, transportation and other components involved in disaster response. The La Salle County Fire Rescue & EMS reported that its call volume has increased but that its local response time is under five minutes, less than the national average, and that a new ladder truck has been put into service. The county department is looking into obtaining an additional ambulance for improved coverage of the county, which includes stations in Cotulla and Encinal.

In a separate presentation, Texas DPS representative Fernando Diaz outlined the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new computer software program for emergency operations management, CAMEO, which combines several resources to aid in disaster preparedness, including accurate mapping, plotting toxic material or fire spreading in different climactic conditions and under specific wind directions, and complete listing of hazardous materials and their effects as well as their potential threat when mixed. The LEPC will receive a more detailed presentation on the CAMEO system at a future meeting.

Energy industry representatives were again reminded by LEPC President Dr. Jack Seals that it is vital all telephone numbers and related contact information be updated and posted on gates, pipelines and industry site fencing in order to facilitate proper notification in the event of an accident. Dr. Seals also noted that the Cotulla ISD Transportation Department’s vehicles are available for emergency evacuation of schools or residential neighborhoods in the event of a disaster.

The next meeting of the La Salle County LEPC will be at noon on Wednesday, May 9, in the EOC on Mars Drive in the Las Palmas development beside IH-35 in Cotulla. A luncheon is made available at 11:30 a.m.