To the average civilian, the heart of Laurel’s upgraded Emergency Operations Center would appear appears to be a room filled with desks, computers and walls lined with monitor screens.
For Stephen Allen, emergency manager in the city’s Office of Emergency Services, the center room is a dream come true.
“I’ve operated at the city, county and state levels, from the very small to the very large, and I would put this up against any other,” Allen said, gesturing with pride to the room located in the Laurel Municipal Center. with pride. “It’s small, but its capacity is great.”
The Emergency Operations Center, which reopened Feb. 6, is designed to help during emergency situations by bringing various city departments together to work side-by-side to provide continuous non-stop guidance to first responders in the field. Whether the incident is a natural disaster, like a tornado or snowstorm, or a terrorist attack, the EOC acts as a headquarters for those on the scene by overseeing and documenting the response process.
The city created its first Emergency Operations Center in 1979, according to Martin Flemion, city administrator. Located in a janitor’s closet in the Municipal Center, the room featured one telephone and two outlets.
“It was used primarily for floods,” Flemion recalled.
When a tornado passed through Laurel in September 2001, city officials realized they needed more than a janitor’s closet and moved to the larger room. Now, they’ve taken a giant step forward.
“We’ve definitely come a long way since the tornado,” Flemion said. “It was definitely a wake-up.”
A year in the making, the remodeled Emergency Operations Center was completely gutted. Walls were walls removed, and windows covered to create a new floor plan that included a meeting room for the mayor and chief administrator, a separate room for a small police dispatch station, a room for the volunteer radio club and HAM operators, and the main room, where volunteers from various organizations can come and help during an emergency.
Allen’s desk sits at the front of the main room, where he can oversee the operations of the entire center room and assist with communications. Every desk in the main room features a phone, computer and a small, portable filing cabinet that is cushioned to double as a seat, too, Allen said. Everything is connected by state-of-the-art software.
“This gives me a lot of options,” Allen said. “I can be doing a lot of things at one time. The capabilities I have here are unbelievable.”
The $275,000 renovation was a capital improvement project approved by the City Council. The city also applied for and received federal grant money allocated to states for hazardous mitigation, Allen said.“We needed an EOC that is flexible and can be expanded,” Allen said. “We now have 14 positions in the main room but have the flexibility to change the room around to double to 28 just like that.”
Everyone entering the EOC must pass a security desk, a feature the previous EOC did not have, Allen said.
“For every incident, the people coming in will change,” Allen said. “There will be different agencies. Like for snow, we might have the department of Public Works and maybe police and fire representatives.”
All phone calls to the EOC are answered by a real person, too, Allen said, and phone operators will direct calls to the proper agencies handling their issues.
For incidents requiring around-the-clock monitoring24-plus + hours of supervision, there is a kitchen and rest area where cots can be set -up.
While the EOC’s primary function is for emergencies, it will also serve as a training center and model for other jurisdictions and as an alternate site for the police dispatch center.
“I’m just happy,” Mayor Craig Moe said. “I’m very pleased with how this has come together.”
All city staff members are trained to be prepared for any type of an emergency, Moe said, adding that every staff member, not just department heads, have a back-up person. Employees are to have things prepared at home in case an emergency calls them in to work.
“They could be here quite a few days,” Moe said.
Like city employees, the public needs to be trained, too, on how to prepare for an emergency situation, Moe said.
“It’s nice to have all these things, but we’ve got to get out into the community and educate them,” Moe said. “The first line of defense is to make sure to educate the public and businesses.”
The residents of Laurel, Moe said, should be prepared with enough food, medications, clothing and hygiene products to last seven days in an emergency. Plans for care of family members and pets should be created. Residents should also take note of their neighbors and the elderly or those home-bound.
With an informed citizen and an operational Emergency Operations Center working together, Allen is confident.
“We hope we never have to use it in real life,” Allen said. “It’s here and a tool we need.”