Derek Franz

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January 23, 2013
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Flipping the switch

By this time next year, Eagle County should have three month's worth of experience running its new $200,000 emergency operations center (EOC).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is giving $100,000 to the county this week for the project. As a condition of the grant, Eagle County commissioners agreed to match the $100,000 last summer. Construction will start as soon as a contract is finalized, which is anticipated to happen this week.

To figure out the best way to invest that $200K, Eagle County Emergency Management Director Barry Smith and other county staff members took a field trip to Colorado's emergency operations center in Centennial last Friday. They examined the technology and construction to gather ideas for this area's first "warm" EOC.

A warm center is one in which the equipment is already set up but not permanently staffed. It is ready at the flip of a switch.

Right now the county's EOC is a cold center. Six computers, phones and other equipment are stored in boxes and have to be set up each time they are needed, which takes about 20 minutes.

"We put the plan together so someone like (Smith) can use it without us," said Eagle County IT Project Manager Amanda Bay.

The basement of the Eagle County building in Eagle was cleaned out and used as a cold EOC last summer. The basement will be the site of the warm EOC as well.

"We'll start with the six computers we already have but we will eventually have 17 computers set up there," Smith said. "That won't happen all at once. We're hopeful the EOC will be functional by this summer, though it might not be complete."

The FEMA grant expires in September but Smith doesn't think there will be a problem spending all the money by then.

A warm center facilitates faster response times and is especially handy when several emergencies are happening at once.

"Dispatch was receiving multiple 911 calls for different fires when the Eby Creek fire happened (last summer)," Smith said. "Each 911 call is a priority, so when a dispatcher is overwhelmed with multiple 911 calls, he has to take those calls before he contacts the power company to tell it to shut off power to an area where there is a fire. An EOC can take over on those kinds of calls and save time."

"We got pretty busy just with that little fire on Eby Creek," said Eagle County IT Operations Manager Jake Klearman. "All of a sudden there were seven people around a table with their computers, coordinating helicopters and everything."

The best place for an EOC is in a windowless basement, said Colorado EOC Systems Administrator Elizabeth Ownsby.

"It should be buried deep," she said.

That's not the case for the state EOC (SEOC), however, which is on a second floor surrounded by windows. The glass is bullet proof and there are nets to catch shrapnel, but it's not the most ideal setup.

"The SEOC moved into this building in 2004," Ownsby said. "It has too many windows and not enough places to hang maps, but it's better than the 1960s bunker it was in before."

Things change quickly in emergencies, so key features in a good EOC allow for flexibility.

Like the SEOC, Eagle County's center will have an elevated floor with removable paneling so that all the electrical cords will be out of the way and easily accessed. Magnetic, dry-erase boards, projector screens and interactive white boards are also used extensively to organize and communicate lots of information on the fly.

The SEOC encompasses auxiliary rooms that include the governor's policy room and a "secret room" where the governor can talk in secure privacy.

Ownsby said hyper-sensitive microphones are in the main SEOC room so that policy-makers can hear everything that's going on without coming into the room for updates.

"The microphones pick up everything - it's kind of scary," she said.

She added that indicator lights go on in another room whenever the secret room is occupied.

Independent power supply is one of the most important aspects. The SEOC is connected to its own generator so that it can stay up and running without interruption if the main power grid goes down. Eagle County's EOC will have a generator as well.

Klearman, Bay and Eagle County Facilities Project Manager Ron Siebert admired all the detailed gadgetry, from a wireless GIS plotter to the lighting features in a training room.

"Our EOC will be very bare bones at first - the infrastructure will take a lot of money," Bay said. "All the nice-to-haves will have to wait. We're enjoying flexing our geek muscles, though."

"It's all about building up the technology in layers over time," Ownsby said.

The other advantage to having a warm center is that it's useful for training when it's not needed otherwise.

Bay said Eagle County has been setting up equipment to train occasionally but now it will be easier.

A class was being taught at the state EOC on Friday and the instructor was once a student of Smith's in 2007. It was even in the same room.

The other good news about the county's warm EOC is that it will be separated from the garden-level room.

"We're always fighting for that room, so it will be nice to have it more available," Bay said.

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The VailDaily Updated Jan 23, 2013 12:37PM Published Jan 23, 2013 12:28PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.