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In Harvey's Wake

Law makes it easier for first responders to come to Houston after Harvey

Texas law enforcement officers and other first responders are shipping out to the Houston area to help local authorities in rescue and security efforts, thanks in part to a statewide aid system.

Fort Worth police cars took over a downtown Houston street Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. 

In Harvey's Wake

The devastation was swift, and the recovery is far from over. Sign up for our ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey's aftermath. 

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After Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, San Antonio sent 30 police officers to Southeast Texas. El Paso deployed more than 40 of its force. More than 100 officers came from Fort Worth.

Across Texas, police, firefighters and other first responders have shipped out of their hometowns to help with rescues and security in Houston and other areas wrecked by Harvey. Often, these agencies are sending people far from their jurisdictions. And they're able to do that with limited red tape, thanks to a decade-old state law that allows local agencies to send support to disaster areas with less legal and financial concerns.

In 2007, the state Legislature created the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System, which allows for a local agency to ask for outside assistance without needing a contract to iron out the details of liability and cost — the agency asking for aid assumes both. In a federal disaster like Harvey, the requesting agency will reimburse those who helped it with the federal aid money it receives.

In the aftermath of Harvey, the state system meant a submerged Houston struggling to keep up with rescue requests could ask for help from other local agencies, which could send paid staff and equipment right away.

The key point is that Houston had to ask, explaining why many agencies didn’t send help until days after the city and its surrounding areas became engulfed by the storm. To qualify under the statewide system and guarantee eligibility for cost reimbursement, the request had to be made.

Jim Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas who handled mutual aid agreements before the state system's creation, said having the state and local emergency management teams send requests before local departments start shipping volunteers makes sense.

“You want them to ask for what they need, not start sending them things that they may or may not need and end up with a bunch of resources down there that aren’t coordinated,” Allison said.

With news of a growing fatality count and tweets from local officials asking for volunteers with boats to help with rescues in Houston over the weekend, some local agencies sent help right away after reaching out to local officials.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office sent three jail guards and four deputies to the area Monday, after Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez spoke with Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, according to a Dallas County sheriff's spokeswoman. Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody told the Austin American-Statesman that he sent a water rescue team on Sunday after a quick text message exchange with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Though not formal, both conversations could qualify as requests under the mutual aid system, Allison said.

Others held back, waiting for official requests from the city, county or state — when they would be guaranteed reimbursement under the state system and not be held liable. The Texas Department of Public Safety — which was unavailable for comment Friday — often coordinates emergency management efforts, issuing requests for aid on behalf of areas suffering from disasters.

In Travis County, Sheriff Sally Hernandez said in an internal memo that the department couldn’t deploy without a mutual aid agreement, but Allison said the 2007 law eliminated that requirement.

Kristen Dark, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said it was important to note that Travis County was also flooding over the weekend from the storm, and rains were expected to carry out into the week.

“All the way up to Monday, we had the potential for 15 inches of rain,” Dark said. “There’s no way we can allow our swiftwater rescue boats when we might need them here at home.”

After the skies cleared, the county’s rescue boat was requested Tuesday and sent Wednesday, Dark said.

Also on Wednesday, after requests from the state or city, first responders and equipment were sent to the Houston area from places including El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Lubbock.

Pictures on social media showed eager police and firefighters loading up cars and boats to head to the waterlogged region, echoing calls of support. More departments, like the Austin Police Department, are expected to send help later, when it’s requested, in the long recovery to come.

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