Portland’s first ‘Emergency Coordination Center’ opens

Find out why, although most citizens will never see inside this new building, it just might be the most important City facility built in a century …

With emergency communication antennas on the roof, and a fleet of vehicles ready to respond, the new Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Emergency Communications Center now serves as the “crisis hub” for the Rose City.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Until January 30, if a large scale natural or man-made disaster had struck Portland – the 24th largest city in the nation – officials would have had to make do with a makeshift hodge-podge of offices and rooms where they’d coordinate a response to the emergency.

In the past, the command staff of police, fire, Portland’s government and other infrastructure officials had to climb an open-air, two-story steel stairway and enter a suite of offices in the Bureau of Emergency Communication (BOEC) 9-1-1 Center building, just east of the I-205 freeway off SE Powell Blvd.

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Public Information Officer Dan Douthit offers a sneak preview of the ECC Communications Center’s main hub room.

With the old arrangement, during a real emergency or during a drill, staff would clear space in a large office, converting it into the “situation room” in which the mayor, county chair and other leaders crammed in to be briefed. Also the staff would commandeer BOEC’s large training room, set up laptop computers. This hodge-podge setup became our city’s “Emergency Communications Center”.

Finally, in June, 2012, officials gathered just south of the BOEC building and broke ground for a new Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) 29,000 sq. ft. Emergency Coordination Center (ECC). [See the story about the groundbreaking event: CLICK HERE.]

The Portland Police Bureau Honor Guard raises the flag, to start the dedication ceremony of the Emergency Coordination Center.

Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Director Carmen Merlo greets some of the 150 officials and guests present for the building’s dedication ceremony.

“It’s true,” PBEM Director Carmen Merlo affirmed, recalling their former emergency response makeshift command center.

“In the past we had an inadequate facility, in terms of its size and capabilities,” Merlo told East Portland News. “We did not have anywhere near the redundancies in communications equipment, backup electrical power, and isolated computer servers that we have here. The ECC takes us from the minor leagues to the big leagues, overnight.”

The new, $19.8 million state-of-the-art emergency coordination center in outer East Portland is one of the most seismically sturdy facilities in the state. It provides a central hub for Portland’s public safety officials to respond to a major disaster, including catastrophic earthquakes, floods, winter storms, or other hazards. It also features a commercial kitchen that is equipped to feed an army of staffers as they work.

In this main-floor “hub room”, and in smaller situation rooms surrounding it, up to 200 representatives of all area bureaus and agencies can work together during an emergency.

The building also houses the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management offices, and Portland Water Bureau’s Emergency Management and Security offices – all located a breezeway away from the existing BOEC 9-1-1 Center.

On a day-to-day basis, 18 PBEM employees work there – as well as Portland Water Bureau security staff – for a total of some 30 people. “But, during a large-scale activation, we can accommodate about 200 people in the building,” Merlo pointed out. “All of the City’s infrastructure Bureaus can work together here, insuring that we continue to have essential services during an emergency.”

The ECC is equipped to help officials coordinate response to all kinds of emergencies, PBEM Director Carmen Merlo says.

Facility quickly put to the test
Beyond responding to large-scale emergencies, like a catastrophic earthquake, the facility makes it possible for all responding Bureaus to coordinate the area’s resources for such crises as a major flu outbreak or flooding. In fact, just 10 days after the ribbon was cut for the ECC, emergency first-responders gathered there to coordinate the response to the early February snowfall and ice storm.

The ECC was built primarily for the City of Portland, Merlo observed. “However we do expect to take in our partners from the counties, state, and even the federal government – depending on the event.”

Just west of the main room is the Portland Water Bureau’s Emergency Command Center.

Water Bureau Security Center gets a home
For a time, the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) security division, which guards the City’s drinking water facilities across the region, was located in a temporary trailer – before it was situated in the Penumbra Kelly Building on East Burnside Street.

“Now, it’s permanently located here at the ECC,” said PWB Administrator David Shaff as he inspected the new building. “And also, we now have our Bureau’s Emergency Communication Center here.  Whenever we have any sort of a water emergency, we will be able to collect here, and we’ll be able to run our system from here.”

PWB Emergency Manager Randy Kane shows a printed plan that can be used to troubleshoot and repair their systems – even in the event of total computer failure.

In west end of the building, PWB Emergency Manager Randy Kane was in the “map room”, just off the emergency center wing of the building.

“People can’t get along without water,” Kane said. “In addition to our system plans and schematics on computer, we also have up-to-date hard copies, and microfiche backups, of Portland’s most important infrastructure system.”

The ECC is a major step toward emergency preparedness, affirms Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick.

In the parking lot, City Commissioner Steve Novick, in charge of PBEM, welcomed visitors, saying, “We are celebrating the opening of the Emergency Coordination Center.  It’s an important have a facility that will survive an earthquake. Leadership [will be able to] direct emergency response activities, while gathered here in one place.”

The building is one piece of the puzzle, Novick went on. “We have a lot more preparation to do. It’s also critically important that every family, every household, and every person in the region take steps to prepare themselves.  Have that emergency kit ready!”

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales vows to support emergency response training.

More than its being a building, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales said, “This is a ‘tool’. It’s like any other tool, it has to be exercised – we have to practice. We have to know how to use it. Part of my commitment is that we, as a city, will be practicing our response to emergencies.”

Although the ECC located in East Portland, Hales said, “It is located only about a mile off the geographic center of the City of Portland.  It is ideally located to be a regional asset for emergencies that do not know city boundaries or county limits.”

PBEM Director Carmen Merlo, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick prepare to cut the ceremonial ribbon, dedicating the new Emergency Coordination Center.

Inside the new facility, Mayor Charlie Hales says he’s made plans to find a way to the Emergency Communications Center from his inner Southeast Portland home, regardless of the disaster.

After the ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony, Hales commented that the ECC location is advantageous to him personally, because he lives in the Eastmoreland neighborhood.

“In the event of a major disaster, where telephones are not working and power poles have fallen across the street, they key people still need to get here,” Hales pointed out.  “My emergency transportation plans include the Springwater Trail, and involve hiking boots or/or a bicycle.”

© 2014 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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