State to build larger emergency center

By Kevin Wheatley, Frankfort State Journal

Click here for the original Frankfort State Journal story.

Heltzel EOC

John Heltzel, director of Kentucky Emergency Management, stands where the new emergency operation center will be built at Boone Center National Guard Armory. (Photo by Tricia Spaulding/tspaulding@state-journal.com)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The state’s Emergency Operations Center can withstand a nuclear blast and an earthquake, but it can’t adequately house the multitude of state and federal officials who converge on Frankfort during presidentially declared emergencies.

Citing a lack of space in the 26,000-square-foot facility at Boone National Guard Center, the state plans to build a new EOC building that will be about three times larger and cost more than $9 million, Director of Kentucky Emergency Management John Heltzel said.

“It’s actually configured to let us grow,” he said, noting operations will expand depending on the severity of disasters.

Federal grants will pay for about 98 percent of the project, which will connect to the current EOC and is scheduled for completion by June 1, 2013, Heltzel said. Morel Construction of Louisville is the primary contractor.

The necessity of a larger EOC has been discussed for some time, but it became apparent during the ice storm of 2009, which cut off electricity in parts of Kentucky for about a month.

The storm marked the first time in recent history that Kentucky had a federal emergency declaration. More than 100 counties declared an emergency, and the Kentucky Army National Guard fully mobilized in response.

“We had all the support from the federal government show up,” Heltzel said.

“At the same time, we needed to have all elements of state government on site. This building is just not big enough to facilitate doing all the work that’s got to be done to meet the needs of the citizens.

“… The building actually held us back from being able to do some of the work that needed to get done.”

The current EOC was built during the Cold War era in the 1970s and, as a product of the time, can withstand a nuclear blast, Heltzel said. The concrete building can also survive a massive earthquake, a necessity given Frankfort’s potential vulnerability to the New Madrid fault line (in Missouri, Illinois and western Tennessee), he said.

But emergency management has grown considerably since then, Heltzel said.

Kentucky has fallen victim to 10 federally declared disasters in the last four years,  he noted.

During the ice storm, some operations and meetings with state and federal officials spilled into the EOC’s hallways and five nearby buildings because of crowding.

“When you put in long hours and the stress involved, elbows get bumped and people are displaced in seating and things,” said David Altom, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs.

“That really affects our efficiency and our ability to communicate and get things done. Just to have five guys – FEMA, state police, whoever –get together and talk in a quiet corner to solve a problem, there were no quiet corners.”

The current EOC, which handled about 5,000 incidents last year and takes calls every day at all hours, has about 30 seats available.

“At one point during the ice storm, we had more than 60 people in that room, and the halls were completely filled,” Heltzel said.

“… If we ever had to completely relocate in the middle of a disaster to another facility, that’s not going to be efficient. We’d lose some time during that transition.”

Members of the state media either hung out in the EOC’s hallways or in conference rooms while waiting for news briefings during the ice storm, Altom said.

The new EOC will also allow “significant elements” of the department’s Division of Emergency Management to relocate under on roof, Heltzel said, noting the division currently has three different locations.

The new EOC will also meet modern counter-terrorism requirements, such as putting concrete barriers near entry points.

“Of course, one of the good things about being at Boone Center is it’s a secure military post,” he said.

Since the current building is on the state historic register, the new EOC must match it in compliance with the Kentucky Historical Society’s regulations, said Buddy Rogers, a spokesman for the Division of Emergency Management

“I’m really pleased with the design work that was done because when you see it … they complement each other,” Heltzel said. “There’s no way to match a 30-year-old building with a brand-new building, but they did it in a way where they’re going to complement each other.

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