Recovery

Texas City Officials Share Tech Lessons Learned from Disaster, Bad Actors

Officials from the Austin Police Department and the Houston Airport System discussed how their technology performed during recent large events, at the Texas Digital Government Summit.

by Theo Douglas / June 1, 2018
Tanya Acevedo, left, chief technology officer at Houston Airport System, and Ely Reyes, assistant chief of police at Austin Police Department, discuss how their agencies' technology performed during recent large events at the Texas Digital Government Summit. GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Theo Douglas

Like their state and county counterparts, municipal officials train, plan and upgrade their technology to be ready when natural disasters or bad actors strike. But two recent high-impact events showed authorities in Austin, Texas, and Houston what they were doing right and where their tech could be enhanced, officials from the Austin Police Department (APD) and the Houston Airport System (HAS) said at the Texas Digital Government Summit May 30.

Three months ago, the state capitol became the site of a national news story as APD along with local, state and federal law enforcement worked frantically to find the serial bomber behind five package bomb explosions. The blasts killed two and injured five between March 2 and March 20. A suspect, identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, 23, of Pflugerville, Texas, detonated a bomb in his vehicle north of Austin on March 21 as police closed in.

Following the initial incident March 2 and the next two explosions that followed it, APD set up an emergency operations center and the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) “immediately sent hundreds of agents,” said Assistant Chief of Police Ely Reyes. All told, the investigation circled in around 1,000 personnel.

The impact of what Reyes called a “multi-jurisdictional event” was huge, and one immediate lesson for residents and law enforcement alike was simply “get to know your neighbors” beforehand, whether they live on your street or work at a public safety agency you may need to call on during an investigation.

APD knew its federal and local “neighbors,” but communicating at a crisis level was another matter, Reyes said. Mobile systems weren’t shared, so police passed out extra radios from their system so teams in the field could maintain constant contact.

“If somebody — FBI, ATF — needs something from us, a few seconds can make the difference between life and death,” said Reyes, who is one of three finalists applying to be the next police chief in Seattle, Wash. A decision is expected this summer, he told Government Technology afterward.

The search for the bomber was also somewhat swamped by a deluge of more than 1,200 tips. The ATF, Reyes said, had a paper-based tip program, while APD had an in-house system where tips were entered and checked manually. The FBI had a “robust” system but it was deeply password-protected, he said, calling “proprietary” architecture an “ongoing problem.”

“I think as leaders in technology, it’s up to us to set the standard, when we’re doing RFIs and RFPs and we’re soliciting vendors to come in. That’s open source, non-proprietary programs that we can use, that we can share with other departments,” Reyes said, noting proprietary designs also exist in the area of body-worn cameras.

The police department also had problems with the downlink for the FLIR infrared camera system on its helicopter, which adversely impacted its live video feed. An immediate upgrade was financially out of the question, Reyes said, but he pointed out that because the agency had state and federal funding requests for bomb detection equipment pending, these were able to be quickly approved.

From Houston, Tanya Acevedo, chief technology officer at HAS — a three-facility system comprising the George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby airports, and the Ellington Airport/Houston Spaceport — discussed her agency’s response to Hurricane Harvey last summer, which caused $125 billion in damage, killed 106 in the U.S. and caused major flooding in the Houston metropolitan area.

Acevedo, most recently the chief information officer at Travis County, had been at HAS just more than a month when Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25.

None of HAS’ three airports closed. Passengers and staff remained on-site at Hobby Airport, while Ellington Airport supported the Texas National Guard; federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security transformed Bush Airport into a civil-military operations center (CMOC).

The CTO came from an area where many agencies were part of the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN), a strictly controlled consortium with a sturdy architecture that rarely experienced outages. In Houston, multiple providers empowered its infrastructure, and network outages were less uncommon — though during Harvey, Acevedo said in an interview, the network never failed.

“That was my concern going into this hurricane, how stable the network environment was. But it did not go down. We were prepared to communicate via radios, but we never had to,” she said. The experience, however, underscored the value of building redundancy into a network to ensure connectivity.

Hosting federal agencies at Bush Airport, however, meant the military “pushed us aside to a different facility,” Acevedo told the Summit audience.

“What the lesson learned there is, is keep your technology on hand. We literally had to create a separate network in a different hangar, and we had to build on the fly,” she said.

In California, where Acevedo previously had been an IT manager in Orange County, government code declares public employees to be “disaster service workers subject to such disaster service activities as may be assigned to them by their superiors or by law.”

That wasn’t the case in Texas, and while many of the roughly 1,100 HAS staffers worked remotely during the event, Acevedo said the agency would have benefitted from making use of a “check-in” app or service, or locating staff via tracking technology on their cellphones. Doing so, she said, would also have helped inform a decision on when it was safe enough for employees to return to work on-site.