County opens crisis center

Emergency operations to be controlled from new high-tech facility

August 09, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

For the past 13 years, responses to emergencies in Anne Arundel County have been coordinated by officials sitting around folding tables in the basement of Fire Department headquarters.

They'd push the tables together for a meeting, recalled James D. Weed, director of the Office of Emergency Management.

"I'd stomp on the floor to send a message," joked Division Chief Stuart McNicol, a Fire Department spokesman.

No longer.

Weed's department moved out of the basement in Millersville two weeks ago and into a $2 million refurbished suite in the Henry L. Hein Public Service Building in Glen Burnie. The 9,300-square-foot office, nine times bigger than the old one, was dedicated yesterday.

The building, named for the late Glen Burnie businessman and community backer, also houses a public auditorium, the county Workforce Development Corp. and the county's TV station, bringing the total cost of the project to $5.6 million.

The folding tables have been replaced with sleek wood ones. Chairs have leather backs. Weed's office, three times the size of his old one, includes a flat-screen television mounted to the wall, two flat-screen computer monitors and a window.

The real guts of the center, the place where the county will map out its responses to future snowstorms, floods, and other catastrophes, is a room aptly named the Emergency Operations Center.

Here, seven rows of work stations, each equipped with a phone and headphones to listen to whatever is on the screen, face a television screen the size of a football scoreboard. It can display images from 12 feeds at once.

The room used to be a movie theater. Now it looks like mission control for a NASA launch.

"If there is an emergency, this is where we'll manage it from now on," Weed said with a hint of pride in his voice.

Perhaps in a throwback to the basement days, the room also includes low-tech resources. One wall is covered with sliding panels of whiteboards, so officials brainstorming about an event can draw diagrams of their ideas.

Each of the 30 work stations is neatly labeled - with slots for representatives from the public schools, the city of Annapolis, public works, and even Verizon. But not every emergency requires staffing from a full panoply of agencies, Weed said.

It might not be Camp David, but Weed said it is "slightly" more advanced than the Maryland Emergency Management Agency building in Reisterstown. A spokesman from MEMA did not return a phone call yesterday.

Much like the $860,000 mobile command vehicle the county rolled out last summer, the new facility includes software that can establish links between normally incompatible communications devices. For example, by routing calls through the center, a helicopter pilot contacting the center via radio can talk to a firefighter on his cell phone.

In addition to space for newly acquired communications technology, the room center has an area dedicated to a much older form of communication: ham radio.

"You always run the risk of having a failure," Weed said. "The one thing that has never failed is ham communications."

Frank Winner, a volunteer communications coordinator, said he has a network of 80 ham operators who could assist with communications if satellite links fail or if cell towers are knocked down.

Weed brought a group of elected officials through the facility this week and said they were "overwhelmed" and "ecstatic." He said, however, that residents won't be much affected by the new space.

Weed didn't want to diminish the work that his department has done in the past: "Even in the basement of Millersville we managed events real well."

At yesterday's dedication, County Executive Janet S. Owens lauded Hein, a former hardware store owner and banker who died in February. "Mr. Hein was a lifelong resident of Glen Burnie who loved this town and constantly worked to improve it," she said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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