By JOHN WILLIAMS
LCRA's Public Safety department has served for more than 30 years as a valued resource for communities throughout the region for law enforcement, emergency response and security for LCRA's power plants, dams and offices.
The department has grown from a one-man office established in 1979 to a 66-person staff – 25 of whom are known as LCRA Rangers, certified peace officers licensed to carry weapons and make arrests as they patrol LCRA's lakes and parks and the lower Colorado River between Austin and Matagorda Bay.
"Our original goal always has been to protect LCRA's critical infrastructure," said Chief Ranger Don Brent, who joined the department in 1996 and became its head in 1998. "That's still very important. But our focus has broadened through the years to include law enforcement – both to protect visitors to LCRA parks and lakes and the Colorado River, as well as to assist local agencies' public safety efforts."
A Texas Ranger creates the LCRA Rangers
It was a Texas Ranger, Capt. John Wood, who started LCRA's Public Safety operations in January 1979. Wood had just retired from a 36-year law-enforcement career, including 29 years with the Texas Rangers. He recalled that a "senator friend" wrote LCRA's Board of Directors, asking the Board to put him to work for LCRA.
At the time, LCRA was nearing completion of the first unit of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project. The new operation, along with LCRA's other power plants and dams throughout Central Texas, convinced management that it needed someone who could set up and oversee security operations to protect its facilities.
Wood was in good standing for the job, both in stature – he is 6 feet 5 inches tall – and in experience. During his career with the Texas Rangers, he led investigations of crime and corruption in South Texas, including the infamous political machine run by George Parr, the "Duke of Duval." Wood's investigation resulted in 300 indictments against school and county officials, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By the time he retired in October 1978, his duties included commanding 16 Texas Rangers and the Department of Public Safety's SWAT team operations in South Texas.
"Capt. Wood's qualifications prove him to be an excellent choice for the position," said Charles Herring, LCRA's general manager at the time. "His vast amount of experience in investigating large-scale thefts and his familiarity with modern-day electronic security equipment will be invaluable to LCRA."
Because Wood was responsible for such a large region – from Lake Buchanan to Bay City – he hired additional staff, initially to work as gate guards at the Fayette Power
Project and Sim Gideon Power Plant. Because Wood had been a Texas Ranger, the LCRA personnel also became known as "Rangers."
Wood initially planned to stay only a year at LCRA but remained for nearly five. By the time he retired as chief of security in October 1983, he left LCRA with a security team of eight Rangers and two sergeants. Wood also was successful in having the state commission the Rangers as peace officers, licensed to carry and use weapons and make arrests.
"We all had a lot of respect for him," Brent said of Wood. "He took on a huge task and put a lot of things in place that we have been able to build on."
Wood and his wife Jewel returned to San Antonio, where they live today in the same house that was his residence during much of his tenure with the Texas Rangers. At age 96, he is the oldest living Texas Ranger.
Focus has expanded to provide emergency response
The department established by Wood continued to evolve in response to the needs of LCRA and the communities it serves.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the department under the leadership of Chief Ranger Don Welch began patrolling LCRA's lakes and parks in addition to guarding LCRA facilities.
By the mid-1990s, the department's focus had expanded further, as part of LCRA's decision to transform the team from security guards to public safety providers, with an emphasis on emergency response, as part of LCRA's public service mission. That decision required the department to hire additional Rangers with skills in rescue, life-saving and emergency planning, and to train existing staff in those skills.
Many times, when law-enforcement or medical help is needed on or near the Highland Lakes or lower Colorado River, an LCRA Ranger is the first to arrive on the scene.
Today's LCRA Rangers are trained in emergency medical assistance and are proficient in rescuing people in swift water and other hazardous situations. The Rangers work closely with other law-enforcement agencies, especially in coordinating patrols of the Highland Lakes.
Public education is another major emphasis. If a Ranger on lake patrol has to stop an errant boater, the goal is not to simply write a ticket but help the boater understand the importance of following safety regulations, such as wearing life jackets.
"If we can help increase boating safety, we can reduce accidents, and that can save lives," said Assistant Chief Ranger Jason Hoffman.
Homeland Security, emergency communications also important
The department's original goal of providing security to LCRA facilities took on increased importance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today, 27 security officers keep a watchful eye over the power plants, dams and other components of LCRA's critical infrastructure. Public Safety also participates in task forces with various local, state and federal agencies and works closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to share information on security issues.
Other Public Safety employees maintain a communications and dispatch network, an operation that plays a critical role in major floods and other emergency situations that require LCRA and local agencies to share information and coordinate activities.
"Our mission has expanded significantly since the early days when Captain Wood began hiring the first Rangers," Brent said. "But our essential mission remains unchanged: to protect people, property and the environment."