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First Responders Converge on College Station

8/19/2007 12:00 AM

COLLEGE STATION - Lance Williams, a firefighter here, started his first deployment as a member of Texas Task Force One on Sunday. He joined about 300 people from that Brazos Valley-based group, Dallas-based Texas Task Force Two, and other state agencies to get ready in case Hurricane Dean delivers trouble.

"For me, it's a little confusing," Williams said. "For others, it's old hat."

The first order of business is to check in and make sure you have everything you need. Williams lists a change of clothes, helmet, raingear, and gloves as part of his 50-pound pack.

"We have to be self-sufficient for 48 to 72 hours," he said.

Williams' colleague, College Station fire Lt. Joe Doawarren, helped during a three-week deployment for Hurricane Katrina.

"The last time, we went to New Orleans, we did the same," he said. "It's just a bigger scale, we're pulling more resources together and getting ready to go."

Meanwhile, inside a conference room, higher-ups were being told the gathering was "the greatest start on something that I hope doesn't happen that we've seen in a long time."

Task Force One is only about 10 years old, and Hurricane Rita stretched resources right after Katrina, so leaders said this is the biggest mobilization yet -- and their biggest test.

"The predictive services say that it's going into Mexico," Operations Chief Jeff Saunders said of the hurricane. "There's still a chance that this storm could hook back up into Texas in the Laredo area and move back up into central Texas. [In that case,] we will have a flood event that we will be dealing with from that point on."

Other leaders mentioned contraflow and traffic issues in the Rio Grande valley, and the fact that any plans will be stopped if the operations team says it is not safe to be on the streets.

An idea of the magnitude of the response can be gleaned from a look around the parking lot at the warehouse staging area. In just one corner is a boat and a truck from Austin, a similar unit from Denton, plus trucks from Grapevine and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And the man in charge of this effort, Texas Task Force One Director Bob McKee, who will report back to Governor Rick Perry's emergency operations staff, said his group is linking up with federal officials.

"FEMA is actually at our state operations center partnered with the state so the communication that occurs is really the Texas way," McKee said.

The idea is to have Texas ready if that big hurricane, even if it's not Dean, hits.

"As we prepare, there will be a lot of training that will go on," McKee said. "There will be a lot of cross-pollinization with agencies in preparation, whether its this storm or a future storm, we know we're going to work together at some point in time."

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