Emergency operations center gets first test

Published 1:43 pm Sunday, August 28, 2011

Emergency operations coordinator Capt. Jim Judkins, left, shows a list of road closures on a computer screen to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn at the emergency operations center Saturday morning.

More than a year after it first opened, the city’s Emergency Operations Center got its first test from Hurricane Irene.

It was the center’s first time on full activation status since opening last August. By all accounts, everything went smoothly.

“It gives us more flexibility,” said Capt. Jim Judkins of the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue. He’s the city’s emergency management coordinator.

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The center activated at 7 a.m. on Saturday, just before the city began seeing Irene’s full intensity.

Up until the center’s opening last year, a small training room at the White Marsh Road fire station served as the main Emergency Operations Center for the city. It had fold-up tables and little access to technology.

“This was the technology in our other building,” Judkins said on Saturday morning, holding up a notebook.

Though that old center remains as a backup, it’s unlikely it will ever be needed.

The new center, located in the back of the King’s Fork Public Safety Center, was built with reinforced concrete to withstand a Category 2 hurricane — slightly stronger than the force Irene brought to Suffolk.

It is equipped with primary and backup generators, which were needed Saturday when the area lost power just before 10 a.m. It also boasts television screens mounted on the walls, dedicated stations for each city department and smaller rooms for extra staff.

The room has no windows, but staff can access live camera shots of most city facilities, which allow them to check on their buildings and the weather at the same time.

On Saturday, every city department had a representative at the center.

Chief Thomas Bennett and Maj. Larry Wilson were there representing the Suffolk Police Department. In a smaller incident command room at police headquarters in the downtown area, four other police department personnel were directing the police response to the hurricane.

“We’re ready to respond to whatever comes before us,” said Capt. Dean Smith.

At 9 a.m., Smith said, “It’s relatively quiet for us right now.” As he spoke, the first reports of flooding on area roads, including North Main Street, started coming in.

Bennett had increased the amount of staffing on the normal shift, Smith said. He also notified all police department personnel to be on standby.

Back at the emergency operations center, Bennett reported to the room full of staff that Lakeland High School, an emergency shelter where a couple dozen had sought refuge at the time, had just lost power and the generator had not yet kicked in.

Instantly, several staff members were working on the problem, and Lakeland soon had generator power.

“It’s so beneficial now that we have the appropriate tools and technology, and the space to have the appropriate staff here,” city spokeswoman Debbie George said.