Border Patrol Seeking Deeper Involvement in First Response
“Since 9/11, the emergency responder community has recognized (that) our citizens hold us to a higher standard than what we had in place,” said Charlie Montgomery, emergency manager for Hidalgo County.
Across the nation, multi-jurisdictional response – or at least preparedness – to emergencies is becoming the norm. Along the United States/Mexico border, a federal agency is working to become more closely connected with county, city and state governments to take on a greater role in emergency preparedness.
Several months ago, the McAllen Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, which covers 19 Texas counties, began forming an Emergency Management Advisory Committee. During the summer, the group sent a letter to all county emergency planners in the sector to encourage joint participation in emergencies.
John D. Guinn, senior patrol agent for the border patrol’s McAllen Sector, said the agency is trying to improve liaisons with state and local groups.
“We want them to integrate the border patrol into their emergency management plans,” Guinn said.
The border patrol, the largest federal agency in the region, hopes to cross-train in emergency preparedness with other local groups and develop a database detailing who to contact in the region for what emergency.
Throughout its history, the U.S. Border Patrol primarily has been an agency that focused on immigration enforcement. With 9/11, that began to shift.
First, the agency was moved from Immigration and Naturalization Services to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Then, the agency’s mission statement was changed to reflect the changing face of America after 9/11.
Guinn said a directive to prevent the entry of terrorists and their weapons of terrorism was added to the agency’s mission.
Hector Escamilla, special operations supervisor for the McAllen Sector, said no concrete platform has been mandated, but the McAllen Sector has recognized the need for interagency collaboration and is “trying to get ahead of the game.”
Border patrol personnel routinely attend Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council meetings about homeland security and other emergency planning issues. Escamilla said the three councils of governments within the sector have been responsive to the border patrol’s involvement.
Richard Hinojosa, deputy executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council, said the border patrol was involved in the homeland security strategic plan development.
“When we need their advice or input, they’re there,” Hinojosa said. The goal is to involve the border patrol with each county’s emergency planners once an emergency is declared, he added.
Tomas R. Sanchez Jr., emergency management coordinator for the city of Kingsville and Kleberg County, has had a working relationship with the border patrol for several years. Border patrol personnel are stationed at Naval Air Station Kingsville and have helped out during hurricanes and other weather emergencies.
After receiving the letter from the border patrol, Sanchez met with Guinn to open avenues for even more cooperation. They discussed sharing personnel and equipment, and shared information about hazardous materials awareness and other emergency response guidelines.
Earlier this year, city, county, state and federal employees participated in a bioterrorism tabletop exercise in Weslaco sponsored by the Texas Department of Health. Sanchez said each took an active role, and the exercise went well.
Sanchez said he is proud to see the McAllen Sector take an active, positive role in working with the locals. The McAllen Sector, he said, is taking the forefront nationwide in this interagency cooperation effort, and other border patrol sectors are beginning to follow.
“We like the idea of the feds and locals working together,” Sanchez said.
While they worked together before 9/11, Sanchez said that incident pulled them even closer together.
Montgomery began working with the border patrol after 9/11 to involve their personnel in the county’s training exercises and planning. She describes the border patrol as “very willing partners.”
The relationships among agencies are important, Montgomery said, for becoming aware of protocols and knowing who to contact at the various organizations.
“The importance of staffing interaction and interoperative training can’t be stressed too much,” Montgomery said. “Our department’s experience in standardizing training and response has taught us it’s a long-term project.”
The objective, she said, is to ensure unified response in an emergency so that none of the first responders are injured and so they can best serve the citizens.
Montgomery said she saw this in action at the building collapse in Nuevo Progresso, Mexico, in April. Responders from both sides of the border showed up to work the large-scale emergency.
After a couple of hours the workers went to unified command, Montgomery said, and the situation went very smoothly from there – better than hoped, in fact.
Tom Hushen, emergency management coordinator for Cameron County, said his county also has begun working with the border patrol for emergency response and has shared contact information.
Hushen said the county is hoping border patrol personnel can serve as first responders in emergencies prior to the state coming in.
“There’s a small window of emptiness, usually about 24 hours, before the state can arrive,” Hushen said. Border patrol personnel are already in the area and could help fill that gap.
The border patrol initiative should help keep that headed in the right direction.
“We want to be looked at as an agency that has a lot to offer,” Guinn said.
H – By Tammy Wishard
9bordercontrol-930Wishard, Tammy – Sept.04