Best Practices Awards: Travis County

Neighborhood fire drill, Silver Watch initiative improve safety in Travis County

By Jody Seaborn

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"When, not if" is often heard when the topic of wildfires comes up in Travis County, where tens of thousands of homes are considered to be at high to extreme risk. Such assumed certainty demands preparation. So Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea and others created a neighborhood fire drill. 

Around the same time, Travis County Precinct 5 Constable Carlos B. Lopez wanted to help elderly residents who don't have anyone around who can check on them regularly. He devised a solution: the Silver Watch Program. 

In recognition, the Texas Association of Counties named Travis County the recipient of two 2020 County Best Practices Awards. 

Neighborhood Fire Drill 

The idea of a neighborhood fire drill was planted in Commissioner Shea's mind by a simple question from an official in neighboring Bastrop County who lost his house in the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire, which killed two people and destroyed 1,673 homes: Why don't neighborhoods have fire drills like schools and workplaces do? 

Shea took the idle thought as a suggestion for action. Unable to find examples of neighborhood-based fire drills, she and a team of county officials and first responders began developing a wildfire evacuation plan. They found eager partners in the 200-home, fire-vulnerable Comanche Trail neighborhood near Lake Travis. 

The residents of Comanche Trail understood the threat of wildfire as well as anyone in Travis County. A wildfire in 2011 had destroyed more than 20 homes in the nearby Steiner Ranch neighborhood. Like Comanche Trail, Steiner Ranch has only one way in and one way out, and its evacuation in 2011 was harrowing and chaotic. 

Working together, residents, firefighters, sheriff deputies and county officials created a plan and successfully put it into practice in March 2019. With the help of Keri Stephens, a University of Texas at Austin communications professor, they documented and analyzed the experiment to create a template for other counties and communities to use. 

"Many counties struggle with how to protect their citizens from wildfires," Shea said. "Engaging our residents fostered a sense of optimism and confidence that when a fire does come, they will know what to do and will be resilient in the face of danger. They also knew their experiment had the potential to save lives elsewhere." 

Silver Watch Program 

Many elderly and homebound residents don't have relatives or friends nearby who can drop by regularly to see how they're doing. Constable Lopez wanted to help fill this often-ignored void. 

He reached out to Meals on Wheels of Central Texas to discuss establishing a partnership. He proposed that while they're out in the community on their daily assigned duties, Precinct 5 constable deputies could check up on Meals on Wheels clients who have little or no support beyond their meal deliveries. Meals on Wheels agreed. 

With training provided by Meals on Wheels, Precinct 5 deputies have logged hundreds of visits since the program took off in 2019. The logs form part of a database that includes vital information about the program's participants, emergency contacts and caseworker support. These welfare checks have proved especially crucial during the pandemic, even with COVID-19 safety restrictions in place. The team expanded the program to include a Silver Santa Drive to collect blankets, tissues, lotion and other everyday items for the program's participants. 

"I am truly honored that TAC has recognized our Silver Watch Program," Lopez said. "Taking care of our most vulnerable population is a community responsibility. The partnership that Constable 5 formed with Meals on Wheels and more to keep our residents safe, I truly believe was divine intervention." 

"Dedication to excellence and saving or improving lives are the common threads that run through these two award recipients from Travis County," TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford said. "We hope these awards inspire counties to continue discovering new solutions to better serve Texans." 

Every other year, TAC's County Best Practices Awards Program recognizes noteworthy innovations and solutions that increase efficiency, improve operations or overcome obstacles facing county governments. These solutions also serve as models that other counties can shape to fit their particular needs.

Harris County was one of six Texas counties selected to receive a TAC 2020 County Best Practices Award. Look for more spotlights in future issues of County magazine. Learn more about the County Best Practices Awards Program at www.county.org/bestpractices.