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Going the Distance During COVID-19

May 1, 2020 - TCEQ staff maintain public health and safety from a (social) distance

By Khrysi Briggs, TCEQ External Relations

Collage of TCEQ staff.

Over the course of a few weeks, every aspect of life as we know it changed. And for TCEQ staff, that change had to happen rapidly.

Much of the agency’s workforce was able to move to teleworking fairly quickly, but with challenges to surmount. And for environmental investigators, emergency response personnel, and others, the question became: How can staff go out and perform essential functions to maintain public health and safety, while also ensuring personal health and safety?

The answers weren’t always easy to find, but with a lot of adaptation, a positive attitude, and plenty of creative thinking, TCEQ staff found a way to get it done.

Humza Habib and Ayo Falade, investigators in TCEQ's Air section, conduct an investigation involving petroleum coke dust.  The investigators take precautions to keep everyone safe during the investigations.
Humza Habib and Ayo Falade, investigators in TCEQ's Air section, conduct an investigation involving petroleum coke dust. The investigators take precautions to keep everyone safe during the investigations.

Changes happened fast

Both in the “office” and out in the field, quick changes were necessary. After all, environmental events themselves are not subject to the concerns of a pandemic.

To start with, clean hands and equipment became a priority. “We are obviously all working from home,” begins Trent Pinion, an environmental investigator in Region 14 – Corpus Christi. “We are, however, still conducting field operations in response to high priority field events such as citizens’ environmental concerns or emergency response situations. After we do such field work, we disinfect the vehicles we use with wipes.”

While some investigations and emergency response events require some interaction with each other, as well as with personnel from other agencies, staff are finding ways to limit their exposure to the public while continuing to serve them. Laurie Gharis, section manager of the watermasters program in the Water Availability Division, says that a few small adjustments helped to protect both her staff and the public.

“By making some changes, staff are still able to do much of their work,” Gharis explains. “For example, we have added signs to our work trucks to let people know we are socially distancing ourselves for their safety and our safety, and we list our telephone number so they can call us.” For staff who needed to report to the office, she says flexibility was key to maintaining business as usual. Work tasks were adjusted or switched altogether, based on each individual staff member’s available technology and abilities.

Chris Keffer follows CDC best management practices while responding to a boat fire/sunken boat on Lake Travis.
Chris Keffer follows CDC best management practices while responding to a boat fire/sunken boat on Lake Travis.
In addition to a video camera and all necessary tools to conduct an odor investigation, Chris Keffer carries his handy can of Lysol and hand sanitizer everywhere he goes.
In addition to a video camera and all necessary tools to conduct an odor investigation, Chris Keffer carries his handy can of Lysol and hand sanitizer everywhere he goes.

Christopher Keffer, an environmental investigator in Region 11 – Austin, shares that investigators put several new procedures in place to ensure staff safety while out in the field. “If we need to take two investigators because of safety or the need for hauling or operating safety equipment, then we take two trucks, eat lunch in our own trucks, and keep the appropriate social distancing at all times,” he says.

For those who began to work primarily out of their homes, life had to change pretty dramatically as well. Gene Muller, a section manager in the Waste Permits section in TCEQ’s Austin headquarters, says that his group created and enacted several temporary procedures and electronic processes to quickly adapt to their new teleworking lifestyle. “We ensured work products could be shared, reviewed, and processed completely electronically,” Muller explains. “This included incoming documents, outgoing letters, weekly timesheets, access to agency databases, etc.”

Staff in TCEQ's air lab continue to analyze and monitor air quality, with the help of some additional social-distancing procedures.
Staff in TCEQ's air lab continue to analyze and monitor air quality, with the help of some additional social-distancing procedures.

And for some duties, working from home simply isn’t an option. Sydney Rios, a chemist in the air lab of TCEQ’s Monitoring Division, shares that while staff have switched to doing as much as they can from home, some of them still have to go into the lab in shifts throughout the week as needed. “It’s been an adjustment for sure, but we’ve been able to make the transition and keep the lab running while still maintaining social distancing,” Rios says. “We’ve created dedicated workspaces for each analyst where possible, and we’ve been cleaning frequently and wearing safety equipment in the lab to try to be as safe as we can.”

Staff now pack cleaning supplies in-office for use by staff in the field.
Staff now pack cleaning supplies in-office for use by staff in the field.

Staff throughout the agency are now using technology to its fullest extent. Kelly Cook, director of the Critical Infrastructure Division, praised his team’s ability to work shifts in the office in tandem with home support. “I’m really just amazed at how quickly most staff adapted and became proficient with the telework arrangement,” he says. “While we would have someone in the office each day to package and ship supplies out to our regions, someone working from home would create and then print address labels directly to the office printers. Who knew you could do that?”

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Trained to be prepared for anything

Even in the face of radical change, for many TCEQ positions, it’s simply business as usual.

Nicole Bealle, regional director of Region 12 – Houston, points out that emergency response coordinators are already accessible for regional issues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that aspect of daily life hasn’t changed.

“Region 12 has often had to deal with unusual demands on office continuity, such as natural disasters and prolonged response events, and has many tools and processes in place to keep staff engaged and communicating,” explains Bealle. While this event has tested those past experiences in a slightly different way, she says that her staff have been troopers at adapting and staying in close communication, both with each other and with staff from local governmental partners who help carry out our mission.

Luckily for Region 14 – Corpus Christi staff, they were already familiar with using Microsoft TEAMS to connect. So now, instead of meeting in-person, emergency response coordinators have a video session every morning to discuss any emergency response events or reports that occurred after-hours, and coordinate for the day. Additionally, Water, Waste and Air sections hold regular video meetings to stay connected and keep staff informed of changing situations.

And supporting the agency’s technology, even from their homes, is something many of the agency’s IT and web staff are used to doing after-hours and on weekends when needed, so it’s not a stretch to begin doing so during the regular workday. “Our web team has posted information to keep the public informed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and various incidents. We couldn’t be so efficient if we weren’t set up to do work at our homes whenever needed,” says Renee Carlson, publishing manager in the External Relations Division. “And of course we and the whole agency rely on the availability of the IT professionals in the agency’s Information Resources Division to keep us connected electronically, now more than ever.”

“Supporting the entire agency from home has been a new and surprising challenge,” adds Greg Rogers, director of Information Resources. “Enabling the agency's remote IT capabilities has been the focus and has involved many efforts, such as the distribution of a large number of laptops and cellphones, expansion of internet and VPN capability, remote access to agency telecom help lines, and a larger than usual volume of Help Desk support requests. While unexpected and unprecedented, all agency staff adapted quickly to remote work, and the IT systems and staff have helped make it possible.”

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Embracing challenges

Adjusting to this new way of life, both at home and at work, certainly comes with challenges.

“I can’t think of any one aspect of life that hasn’t changed for us and the rest of society,” says Chris Podzemny, an environmental investigator in Region 1 - Amarillo. “Our jobs as regulators are dependent on our ability to interact and build relationships with the regulated community. All the technical requirements and hurdles we have faced over the last few weeks, and those we will face in the months going forward, are minor when compared to the loss of the ability to interact with others in the way we always have and have taken for granted.”

While many TCEQ employees adjust to their newfound silence and solitude, others now face their workday with the added challenge of a miniature workforce added into their daily routines.

Bob Castro teaches his kids how to review Edwards Aquifer plans.
Bob Castro teaches his kids how to review Edwards Aquifer plans.

Like many of you, TCEQ staff are now charged with the arduous tasks of balancing an eight-hour workday with homeschooling their children. Chris Keffer perhaps puts it best. “I have my wife and three children all under one roof. You can’t exactly hide,” he says. “You manage your work while listening to Frozen II streaming in the living room, or have an impromptu talk about which lightsaber is the best with a six-year-old, all while doing TCEQ work. It’s a new challenge every day.”

For Cory Chism, director of the Monitoring Division, the biggest adjustment has been simply allowing his work life inside his home life. “My division’s budget liaison said it best,” he shares. “Your home is your sanctuary… and now we’ve let the work monster in!”

Like most of us, Chism doesn’t miss the two hours a day he used to spend commuting, but its absence does create the challenge of transitioning mentally from work to home life. Some days, he says, “you go straight from briefing management on a proposed initiative to folding laundry!”

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Getting creative

Wallace Myers works at home with help from his bearded dragon
Wallace Myers works at home with help from his bearded dragon

Sometimes a little creative thinking is all it takes to adjust your mindset.

Several staff members have shared the innovative ways that they have made teleworking and social distancing easier. For those in small spaces without an existing desk, items like pianos, bar stools, camping chairs, dining tables, and even ironing boards now serve as functioning workstations.

Gene Muller gets into work mode at home with his trusty TCEQ t-shirt.
Gene Muller gets into work mode at home with his trusty TCEQ t-shirt.

For employees like Gene Muller, who found he was often starting his days in casual attire while working from home, he shares that sneaking in some “dressed up” days each week really made a mental difference.

“It makes the weekday feel more normal when you are dressed up and ready for the workday!” he explains. “Another thing I do to make things seem more normal is, when I exit the bedroom at the end of each day, I exclaim to my family ‘I’m home from work! What should we have for dinner?’”

John Pearce, an environmental investigator in Region 14 – Corpus Christi, echoes similar sentiments. “When I’m having trouble getting into a business-centered frame of mind, I will put on a sport coat or my suit jacket to help me get into the mood. It’s a strange little trick, but it does help me feel like I’m in a more professional setting rather than just sitting at my dinette table.”

Meanwhile, Trent Pinion shares that something as simple as listening to music and wearing his TCEQ shirt while he works from home can create just the right teleworking environment.

A few minor scheduling adjustments helped Laurie Gharis to better manage several time crunch problems she was facing. She now starts work each day hours earlier than her normally scheduled time, which helps her to accomplish her major work tasks before her children wake up. Plus, it allows time for a grueling bike ride at lunch every day with her son, which helps them to both be more productive at work and school afterwards.

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Doing good

TCEQ delivers 300 P95 masks to the Austin Regional Clinic. TCEQ also provided 500 masks to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
TCEQ delivers 300 P95 masks to the Austin Regional Clinic. TCEQ also provided 500 masks to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
John Thibodeaux and his wife volunteered to make masks for the Region 10 staff to use during this time.
John Thibodeaux and his wife volunteered to make masks for the Region 10 staff to use during this time.

In the face of so many changes and challenges, it’s brought comfort to know that we are still out in the world doing good.

Shortly after learning of the mask shortage affecting the medical community, TCEQ jumped at the chance to help out. To help the healthcare community and first responders, the agency donated 500 P95 masks to the Department of Public Safety, and another 300 to the Austin Regional Clinic. While TCEQ staff sometimes wear these when responding to environmental events, the agency stepped in to make sure the masks went where they were most needed right now.

John Thibodeaux, an investigator in Region 10 - Beaumont, found a way to help a little closer to home. In their spare time, he and his wife volunteered to make masks for regional staff to use during this time, providing over 60 in total when all was said and done.

Environmental response doesn't slow down for a pandemic. TCEQ staff in Region 12 successfully removed this drum that washed onto the beach, in coordination with Galveston/Galveston County.
Environmental response doesn't slow down for a pandemic. TCEQ staff in Region 12 successfully removed this drum that washed onto the beach, in coordination with Galveston/Galveston County.

Staff members from various offices around Texas now go into their offices in shifts to package and prepare personal protective equipment and sanitizing products to be used by staff whose jobs still take them out into the field. For many employees, this is a vast departure from their workday norms. But at every opportunity, over and over again, the TCEQ team has stepped up to the plate.

Bill Ross, emergency response coordinator in Region 14 – Corpus Christi, stresses how important it is for the public to know that TCEQ is still in business protecting human health and the environment in all conditions. In fact, within just days of the new social-distancing procedures being put into place, he and his team were tasked with working with the U. S. Coast Guard to remove a “Marine Pollutant” barrel that had washed up on the beach near Port Aransas. Proving that once again, even amidst a pandemic, TCEQ staff remain committed to the health and safety of the state and citizens it serves.

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All photos TCEQ.