Enhancing Houston's Emergency Preparedness Plans

Houston's emergency preparedness efforts aim to protect its facilities in a crisis and return them to operation quickly.

By Dan Hounsell, Senior Editor  

Natural always bats last. 

The adage might seem whimsical, but for facility managers and contractors who develop and implement emergency preparedness and response plans designed to protect commercial and institutional facilities, it describes the critical and often unpredictable nature of these duties. 

For planners with the city of Houston, one type of unpredictability to contend with is the weather, which can include hurricanes, flooding, oppressive heat and even freezing temperatures. Through it all, they know their duty. 

“The city of Houston can't shut down,” says John McKenzie, director of facility operations for Houston and San Antonio for TD industries, which provides facilities, maintenance and mechanical construction services to the city. “The office of the mayor, the important facilities, those important first responders cannot shut down. They have to work.” 

Spotlight in planning 

The General Services Department is central to Houston’s in-house emergency preparedness efforts. 

“The department plays a vital role in communicating client needs, strategically navigating funding constraints, prioritizing, and forecasting facility deficiencies, overseeing citywide service contracts, and evaluating market trends within the facility maintenance industry,” says Eric Alexander, the department’s assistant director. 

The department oversees about 350 facilities with a total of 8.1 million square feet that house health, library, police, fire, solid waste and general government. The department's 193 employees include building superintendents, maintenance mechanics, stationary engineers, painters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. The team provides infrastructure maintenance, repair, renovation and environmental site assessments and remediation to client departments. 

"In the event of an emergency or disaster situation, the General Services Department will implement the continuity of operations plan to ensure essential functions are sustained,” Alexander says. Their duties include:   

  • maintaining and operating infrastructure that supports the city’s police, fire, health, library, various public works facilities and other facilities 
  • developing and managing maintenance service contracts to ensure scope adherence and sound fiscal oversight 
  • performing damage assessments of city buildings. 

TD Industries, which is involved in Houston’s emergency preparedness and response efforts, is responsible for about 2.2 million square feet of building space over about 40 different sites. 

“We provide operation and maintenance to keep the comfort and energy aspects of these buildings running properly, and we utilize our service department when we have higher  aspects that need to be accomplished, such as major electrical issues or plumbing issues or major HVAC reinstallments or changeouts,” McKenzie says, adding that building managers on site oversee operations and supervisors and technicians who perform day-to-day duties. 

In an emergency, he says, “My role is to help them build their emergency playbook for their particular sites. Then they perform and execute out of that playbook when emergencies arise, such as hurricanes or freezes or any type of major storm or disasters.” 

Assessing the risks 

As warmer weather draws near in Houston, Alexander and his team prepare for the likely challenges ahead.  

“The biggest natural threats to Houston’s facilities begin at the onset of the summer months,” he says. “High heat levels can result in excessive use of HVAC equipment which can lead to equipment failures. Flooding during the hurricane season poses irrigation issues and even in the rare event, like a winter storm, boiler issues can arise. All these events pose a threat to the health and safety, or the public, tenants and employees housed in these buildings.” 

Preparing facilities for unpredictable natural disasters requires a broad-based approach that takes many variables into account. 

“You don't know how in-depth or dangerous those were going to be or how much water exactly is going to drop or how cold it is actually going to get,” McKenzie says. “We try to prepare for all those instances. Obviously, every year we may learn something from a disaster that we implemented to our plan because we review them annually to make sure that we cover all those proactive natures that we can do and learn from instances that occurred that we may not know of or just happen out of the blue.” 

Despite Houston’s well-earned reputation for hot weather and hurricanes, major challenges can come in also preparing the city’s facilities for the literal polar opposite – freezing temperatures. 

"We do get freezes down here in Houston,” McKenzie says. “It happened about maybe a year and a half ago during the last big winter when the temperatures in Houston got down around the teens. We do have those instances where part of our emergency plan does cover our freeze protection checklists that we need to go through for the sites. We want to make sure that all outside piping and backflow preventers or makeup stations for equipment -- things that are detrimental to the operation of the facilities -- are well kept and covered and that we keep the units running. We make sure we have water flowing through coils." 

The eye of the storm 

Houston’s emergency preparedness plans were put to the test in August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast with catastrophic wind and rain, resulting in 100 deaths and damages to communities and buildings totaling $125 billion. 

The city’s preparations, put together by the General Services Department and TD Industries, called in part for stocking facilities with supplies needed to ride out a hurricane. In Harvey’s case, that turned out to be more than a few hours. 

“In those plans, we have on-site teams that basically live and stay throughout the duration of the event,” McKenzie says. “During Hurricane Harvey, I was actually with my managers during that process at one of our high rises. We lived in the buildings for seven days straight. We slept there. We ate there. We showered there. We did everything because we wanted to make sure that we were there for our customers.” 

The preparations also acknowledge the possibility of lengthy wait and recovery times for the city’s facilities in an emergency. 

"The flooding around Houston and the flooding around downtown made it impossible for us to be able to leave or anybody to come in,” McKenzie says. “During that time, people couldn’t drive safely due to high water. The people that are there still have a job to do, and that's why we try to make sure we staff up not only for the safety aspect of the buddy system. We also don't want our guys having to work 24 hours straight. They need to be able to take breaks and rest. 

“Part of that plan is that we split our team up so individuals that are sitting at home during the event can come in and relieve — when it's safe — those that have been there 24/7,” McKenzie says. “We don't want any interruption of restoration efforts that need to be done for the customers. We make sure ahead of time that people know, can make arrangements for their families and their houses. We usually give them about a 24-hour period before the storm landfall hits to prepare their own personal items before they come to work to be prepared to stay in the building as long as it takes.” 

Improving preparedness  

A critical element in emergency preparedness is reassessing risks, refining plans and taking steps to further ensure facilities can withstand an emergency and return to operation quickly. In Houston’s case, providing the resources to keep facilities cool in a crisis. 

"In Houston, HVAC repairs are the most common and frequent request,” Alexander says. “The demand is so great that we are having a hard time competing with inflation, lead time and supply chain issues. Additionally, we have several contracts with rental companies that can provide equipment as a primary or secondary resource. We look to have redundancies in most of our high-profile facilities. As a result, we are in the process of procuring five HVAC cooperative agreements to expand our options to respond to these types of repairs timelier and keep our buildings safe.” 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the General Services Department and TDI Industries undertook a review of the city’s preparedness plans and response, with a focus on improving the situation in facilities. 

"A lot of it was meeting with the customers afterwards about the location of equipment,” McKenzie says. “A lot of their main equipment, like chillers and boilers, was in basements. Electrical switchgear was in basements — things that were available to be flooded out and basically were during the event of Harvey. We said, 'We need to re-engineer this for next time so we don't run into the same problems.’ 

“Obviously, we can't dictate or determine how much water is going to dump at a time or what could possibly break (and) allow water to infiltrate a facility. But afterwards, we did a really good mitigation aspect of where the water did come from and how can we keep the food doing that again? Obviously, with a 100-year storm like that, we may not ever see that kind of water again, but we want to be prepared if we do.” 

Learning lessons 

For Alexander and his team with the General Services Department, learning from natural disasters and other emergencies and applying those lessons to Houston’s preparedness and resilience is crucial. 

"Being proactive and preparing for the worst-case scenario is vital to the success of our department,” he says. “So is setting up a command center to be in? constant communication with employees. There are so many unpredictable factors in play with our buildings that we must always have a plan in place and a contingency plan.”  

This summer, the department has been staging additional supplies and equipment in all sectors of the city. 

“Due to the heat advisory and escalating temperatures, we are putting equipment like spot coolers, chillers, etc. in place,” he says. McKenzie also is taking stock of past events and using the information to inform preparedness decisions. 

"A lot of it is updating our plans and talking to our customers,” he says. “We want to make sure our customers understand the condition and criticality of their aging infrastructure. That way, they can start preparing and budgeting and planning for repairs. Obviously, piping or units that are 25 to 30 years old have more of a tendency to break down when you don't really need them to than current equipment. We try to maintain those with the customer, as well as providing that capital improvement aspect.” 

Both Alexander and McKenzie know that making assumptions about the nature of an approaching crisis can be dangerous. 

“We don't want to take anything for granted,” McKenzie says. “We want to prepare for an event, even if it seems minor. We want to treat it as a major event because we don't want to be lackadaisical or think that it just may not be very big. We may get some high winds, and that's all right. We want to make sure that we're prepared for the full extent of something that could happen. 

“Proactively, we've got to make sure communications stay up and running. When cell phones go down, we want to switch to two-way radios. We want to do whatever it takes to make sure things occur. We also want to make sure that we staff enough people to safely do the job during these events. We don't want one lone person out there by themselves.” 

For TD Industries, the lessons included rethinking the length of time staff might be forced to remain in facilities during an emergency. 

“We want to make sure we have a type of buddy system because you never know how long we're going to be there, especially with food and rationing and water and things of that nature,” McKenzie says. “We didn't expect during Harvey to have to stay there for seven days straight. But unfortunately, that's the timeline it took to be able to have people come in and relieve anybody safely because of the debris damage and the water and the flooding and everything else.” 

While it remains true that nature always bats last, Houston’s emergency preparedness efforts seek to ensure that planners and staff prepare the best defense and that facilities and occupants come out on top. 

Dan Hounsell is senior editor for the facilities market. He has more than 30 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management. 

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  posted on 9/6/2023   Article Use Policy

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