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Governor names Longview fire chief as chair of Texas Commission on Fire Protection

Gov. Greg Abbott has named Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman as chairman of the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.

“I was surprised,” Steelman said Thursday. “To get a phone call like that, it’s surprising to say the least. Certainly humbling.”

He has been involved with the state fire commission since 2006 when he served on a committee.

“I served for about 10 years, and then in 2017, I was appointed to serve as a commissioner,” Steelman said.

The commission develops and enforces statewide fire service standards and provides education and assistance to the industry. As chairman, he will be in charge of meetings and helping the commission work through issues as they arise.

“We set the standards and make sure we have professional standards in place to keep our firefighters safe,” Steelman said. At a minimum, the commission will meet quarterly in Austin, but there are other meetings and activities that come up through the year.

“It’s certainly exciting,” he said. “I am honored to be able to represent Longview.

As far as he is aware, Steelman is the first chairman of the committee from Longview.

He said he hopes to help make Texas fire services the best in the nation.

Steelman is an instructor at Kilgore College Fire Academy and serves as regional director for the Northeast Region of the Texas Fire Chiefs Association. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Texas Task Force-1, Texas Interstate Fire Mutual Aid System, Texas Emergency Management Assistance Team and the East Texas Council of Government Homeland Security Advisory Committee.

He is also a board member of See Saw Children’s Place Daycare, past president of the Longview (Greggton) Rotary Club and a panel member of the Sabine Industrial District Citizen’s Advisory Panel.

Abbott appointed five others to the commission with terms set to expire in February 2027.

The appointments are subject to Texas Senate confirmation.


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FBI agent speaks to Zonta Club of Longview about human trafficking myths

Human trafficking has many myths. A quick search of social media will lead to posts about the topic, some created to stoke fear.

FBI Special Agent Kimberly Granich, a Longview native, spoke Thursday to the Zonta Club of Longview for a presentation at Holiday Inn North called “Mythbusters: Human Trafficking Edition” aimed at educating the public on common trafficking myths and how to combat them.

While human trafficking is a real threat, it’s not always like in movies or television.

“Most of trafficking is not like the movie ‘Taken,’ ” Granich said. “That’s not what we normally see.”

She said preconceived notions about human trafficking can be harmful to victims, as well.

“Stranger kidnappings are not the norm,” Granich said. “(Traffickers are) going to to look for the easier catch.”

Granich has investigated human trafficking and violence for 10 years.

She used the term “commercial sex” rather than prostitution during her presentation to discuss sex work as to “not always put the blame on the victim.”

One of the myths discussed Thursday was “trafficking doesn’t happen in my city/neighborhood/or school.”

“I saw this all the time when I would go to the nicer parts of town where I was from, the nicer city, the more affluent. I would hear, ‘It does not happen here, it does not happen at our Christian private school,’ ” Granich said. “That’s just simply not true. It can happen anywhere, and it does happen everywhere.”

FBI Victim Specialist Caitlyn Neff of Tyler also spoke Thursday, encouraging those who suspect they have witnessed human trafficking to contact local authorities. She covers 30 counties in East Texas.

“Longview, Tyler and Texarkana are huge for human trafficking,” Neff said, adding that the proximity to Interstate 20 makes the area a trafficking hub.

Granich said she ran a search Monday on a website where ads are posted for “services,” and 40 ads for commercial sex in the Longview area were listed.

Human trafficking is not always sexual nor does it require cages or chains to imprison the victims.

“The law does not require that,” Granich said. “It’s more sensational, which is why you hear more about it.”

She told the story of a woman who was trafficked by a pimp for more than a year. He sent her out of state to work, and she was forced to send money back to him. During this time, he kept her 3-year-old son.

Forced work while a trafficker or pimp keeps any money earned is common as well, including domestic servitude and labor trafficking, she added.

Granich cited a case where a woman traveled to another country, falsified paperwork and brought back another woman as a nanny in domestic servitude. The woman abused the nanny, did not pay her and threatened to have her deported.

Traffickers or pimps do not always use drugs to control victims, as force, fraud and coercion are common means.

Granich added that not all prostitution or commercial sex is sex trafficking.

“Not every woman is being trafficked,” she said.

There is no “mold” for a trafficker and victim, Granich said. Traffickers can be men and women, and victims can be any age and any gender, such as boys and even transgender individuals.

One slide on the presentation said, “consent = non-victim,” which she said is a myth. Not all victims want to be rescued.

“That’s what they want to believe,” she said. Granich said she could not count the times she had been punched, kicked or spit on when recovering victims from trafficking situations. Often, traffickers are offering victims lives, though terrible, that are better than what they had before.

“A pimp can make them feel wanted, desired,” she said.

Granich encourages parents to be prepared to have conversations with their children about sex and consent as well as talking about dangers.

“You want to make sure they’re not exploiting themselves as well,” she said.

Trafficking victims are often from the same nationality as the pimp. For example, American pimps will often have American victims just as Mexican pimps will have Mexican victims.


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Longview mayor: More than 40,000 shots given at COVID-19 vaccine hub
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Longview Mayor Andy Mack on Thursday evening credited the more than 40,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots administered at the city’s hub with reducing hospitalizations locally to the lowest point in a “long, long time.”

Speaking during the City Council’s scheduled meeting, Mack said 25,460 first vaccines have been given at the hub, which is a partnership between the city, Christus Good Shepherd Health System and Gregg County. He said 14,635 second vaccines have been administered for a total of more than 40,000 shots.

“I’m glad to see the high number of vaccinations taking place in our community, which has to correlate with the low number of hospitalizations that we have right now,” Mack said.

“We’re down lower than we’ve been in a long, long time, and that’s great news for not only the citizens but our hospital workers and first responders that have had to battle this for over a year now,” he said. “I’m glad we’re to this point, and I hope that it continues to spiral downward instead of spiral upward like we’ve been fighting for so many, many months.”

The COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the Longview and Tyler region again dipped again with data released Thursday by the state.

COVID-19 patients on Wednesday, the latest day for which data is available, accounted for 2.54% of hospital capacity in the Trauma Service Region G, Texas Department of State Health Services data showed. The rate dropped below 3% on March 18, and since then it has been below 3% every day except Monday. The recent hospitalization rates are among the lowest since June.

The counties that make up the trauma service area are Gregg, Anderson, Camp, Cherokee, Franklin, Freestone, Harrison, Henderson, Houston, Marion, Panola, Rains, Rusk, Shelby, Smith, Trinity, Upshur, Van Zandt and Wood.

The Northeast Texas Public Health District, known as NET Health, on Thursday reported 17 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Gregg County residents since Monday.

Confirmed recoveries and deaths from the virus remained at 5,621 and 108, respectively, according to the district, which reported on Wednesday it would begin updating numbers only on Mondays and Thursdays each week.

The numbers do not include 4,855 probable cases, 4,497 probable recoveries and 88 probable deaths.

A case is considered probable when a person receives a positive result from a rapid test that is not then laboratory confirmed.

On Monday, there were 288 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 in the county and no active cases in Gregg County Jail inmates.

In Smith County, NET Health on Monday reported 47 new confirmed cases since Monday and one additional death. The county has had 11,316 confirmed cases, 10,284 recoveries and 198 fatalities from the virus.

The Texas Department of State Health Services on Thursday reported three new cases of coronavirus in Harrison County residents since Wednesday and no additional deaths.

The county has had 2,398 cases and 102 fatalities from the virus, according to state data.

The state reported one fewer case of the coronavirus in Rusk County and no additional deaths. The county has had 2,171 positive cases, according to the state, and 104 COVID-19 deaths.

Upshur County’s daily coronavirus cases on Thursday increased by one to 1,316, and the county’s total deaths from the virus remained at 67.

Statewide

The state health department on Thursday reported 2,955 new confirmed or probable cases, bringing the state’s pandemic total to 2,759,866, an estimated 98,916 of which are active. Texas hospitals had 3,410 COVID-19 cases on Thursday.

The 132 new COVID-19-related fatalities reported Friday bring the state’s pandemic death toll to 46,868.


Texas death toll from February storm, outages surpasses 100

AUSTIN — Texas officials on Thursday raised the death toll from February’s winter storm and blackouts to at least 111 people — nearly doubling the state’s initial tally following one of the worst power outages in U.S. history.

The majority of the deaths are associated with hypothermia, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. And the dramatic number of new victims is still a potential undercount, as officials continue investigating deaths that happened around the time the storm knocked out power to more than 4 million customers in Texas.

Many homes went without power or drinkable water for days after subfreezing temperatures, failing power plants and record demand for heat pushed Texas’ electric grid to the breaking point.

Texas officials earlier this month put the initial tally of deaths at 57 but warned it would increase. The toll now officially exceeds Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which was blamed for 68 deaths in Texas.

The list of victims cut a wide swath across the state of 30 million people: Some fatalities were nearly as far north as Oklahoma, while others were close to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The most confirmed deaths occurred around Houston, where Harris County officials have reported at least 31 victims.

Among them was Gilbert Rivera, 60, who told relatives after the power went out in his garage apartment that he was cold but staying bundled up. Rivera, who worked for decades as a custodian, had a learning disability but reveled in his independence and chose to live on his own.

Lawrence Ibarra, his 44-year-old nephew, said that after a day of being unable to reach Rivera, his father went out on Houston’s treacherously icy and snowy roads to check on him. When he arrived at Rivera’s garage apartment, he found his son bundled up and dead on the floor. The temperature in Rivera’s house was 37 degrees.

Ibarra said his father told him: “I think he froze to death.”

Rivera’s family is among those who have filed a lawsuit against the state’s embattled electric grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The disaster led to a congressional investigation and the ouster of ERCOT CEO Bill Magness.


Correction

A story on Page 1A Thursday about a former Sabine ISD teacher’s aide being sentenced after pleading guilty to improper relationship between an educator and a student misidentified Gregg County assistant district attorneys Todd Smith and Megan Pepper.


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