Letter: McLennan County emergency head unjustly criticized

I have watched the media response to the West explosion, and there are some points that need to be brought out concerning the efforts by some to blame the McLennan County Office of Emergency Management, headed by Frank Patterson, for the incident in West.

First, Frank Patterson is a well-respected emergency management leader in Central Texas. He is respected because of his knowledge, his dedication and his leadership. When I took office, we had just had a tornado go through our county. Frank was here to help, which I have since learned is typical Frank. He has helped us many times since.
The idea of blaming Frank and other emergency management personnel for what happened in West is nothing short of pathetic. And this pathetic idea is being pushed by people who know so little about emergency management that they believe that a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), which is an advisory committee used by some counties, is the totality of emergency preparedness.

Second, McLennan County has an active LEPC. In fact, Limestone County joined the McLennan County LEPC to participate on a regional basis. The media is aware that McLennan County has an active LEPC. They don’t care. They know the average citizen can easily be led to believe that the government is at fault, and they don’t care what damage they do to very good and devoted public servants, so long as they can sell their story.

Third, whether McLennan County had an LEPC or not would not have affected what happened in West, nor would it have improved the response. The idea that the citizens in West didn’t know that there was a fertilizer facility there because Frank didn’t tell them is preposterous. And yes, under certain conditions, ammonia nitrate can be explosive. Not a secret. So can cars and trucks and butane tanks and houses and grain elevators.

It’s real easy, after the fact, to declare that the government should have anticipated an event and warned about it or prevented it. We see it after every disaster. The media and lawyers, both of whom are only motivated by their own interests, specialize in it. But this is not based in reality. We have trucks and railroad cars passing through Limestone County daily with all sorts of chemicals, many of them hazardous, many of them highly explosive. I could spend all my time running up and down the streets warning people of the constant dangers, but that would accomplish nothing, except to get me committed.

Lastly, we should recognize that the response in West was incredible. The support from neighboring areas, including my county, was swift. Considering the magnitude of the response, it was remarkably well organized. Evacuations minimized the dangers before and after the explosion. The effectiveness of the response to an overwhelming situation is a reflection of the readiness of emergency management personnel in our area, and that is a direct result of Frank Patterson’s leadership, not only during the event but in training and preparation.

The media (or at least certain of the media) would measure our emergency preparedness by how well documented our LEPCs are. That is ridiculous and incredibly misleading. I have a very active Emergency Management Coordinator. He is committed to his job. He works constantly on various areas of emergency preparedness with other EMCs in the area, including Frank Patterson and the Heart of Texas Council of Governments emergency management team.

They conduct drills and tabletop exercises. They work constantly to improve communications during disaster response. And within our county we plan constantly, train as much as possible and try to anticipate any dangers. Our first responders and other volunteers devote a great deal of time to such preparations. Other counties do likewise. Our citizens are much better off for these preparations. The citizens of West and McLennan benefitted from such training and preparedness.
But instead of applauding our emergency management personnel and other responders they are attacked. This is inexcusable.

We have an LEPC. I couldn’t care less whether we have a formal LEPC or not, or whether we can document LEPC meetings to the media or not, because I am not going to go along with the idea that an LEPC is the only measure of emergency management preparation. It’s one tool. The public does not need to be led to believe that LEPCs are all there is to emergency management. We have emergency management plans, we coordinate with other agencies and with the State. We are as prepared as we can be for the unexpected. I am not just defending what happened in West, I am defending the work that all counties do. Some counties have LEPCs, some don’t. Some have full-time EMCs, some don’t. But county leaders have all put a great deal of thought and planning into whatever emergency preparedness is necessary for their respective counties, whether that includes an LEPC or not. Every county is different and faces different risks.

If a train derailed in Limestone County tomorrow, I have a very firm idea of what steps we would need to take, because that’s been a part of our planning. But I know the next disaster will probably be one no one anticipated. And our response will be subject to second-guessing by those who profit from doing nothing but second-guessing what others do. Meanwhile, those who actually do something besides standing on the sidelines questioning others are still working in West, and are already working to limit the possibilities of such an incident in the future – to minimize the risk and maximize the response, knowing that we still do not have crystal balls and the next disaster will be something no one expected.

I hope that the media feeding frenzy will die down and we can get on with business. But I am fed up with seeing our most devoted and capable public servants, who are under-appreciated to start with, thrown to the wolves. The public is better off because of men like Frank Patterson, who deserve a lot more credit and a lot less blame.

Daniel Burkeen, Judge
Limestone County