County's emergency operations center gets upgrade

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New location, better technology provide dispatchers, responders up-to-the-minute information

By Stephanie DeCamp

If there was one good thing that came out of September's flooding, it was the expedited mission to complete Jeffco's relocated and revamped emergency operations center, and to test-drive the updated procedures and technology that came along with it.
"From every incident, there's an opportunity," Sheriff Ted Mink said.
"(The flood) exposed the fact that we were jammed into that one center that we were using, and (we) said, 'Hey, we need to get this (new center) done fast. If something else happens, we need this.' It accelerated our plans."
During the flood, dispatchers were hampered by the inability to have everyone in the same room, which caused some confusion, Mink said. Employees were stationed down the hall, in other rooms and were working from their own offices.
"Consequently, not everyone got to see the same picture," he said. "You saw what you were fed."
The hope is that the new center will keep everyone on the same page during an emergency.
"I don't think anyone anticipated that in the middle of September we'd have the worst floods in county history," Jeffco emergency manager Clint Fey said.
A private opening for the new center was held Oct. 24, with representative from other counties coming to view the transition.
The center can't exactly be called "new," since it simply was moved to a different location in the sheriff's building at the Jeffco government complex in Golden. But for those who work there, it's new — and far more efficient.

Funding for the center
Half of the funds that paid for revamped emergency operations center came from a grant from the state office of emergency management. Another $12,000 came from Jefferson County Public Health, and the rest came directly out of the sheriff's budget. The total project cost was about $117,000.
Fey said the emergency operations department did some of the heavy lifting, moving things from room to room, updating computers instead of buying new ones, and keeping TVs and existing projectors.
To pay for the project, the department sacrificed other purchases that had been budgeted. The sheriff also gave up the space for the center.
"We owe the sheriff a lot of credit for that," Fey said.

The layout
The biggest asset of the new emergency operations center is space — it's about three to four times bigger than the old area, remodeled with newer technology and more efficiently arranged. The county's 19 fire departments and 14 law enforcement agencies need to be coordinated in an emergency, Fey said, and the efficiencies gained by the move will help.
The former center had about 15 chairs and at times 25 people working — on the phone, computers, listening to scanners and watching the news, Fey said. There were three projectors on three different walls.
"No matter where you sat, you were missing out on something we were trying to display," Deputy Manager Rick Newman said of the room's odd angles and sight lines.
The new center has a bullpen-like feel: It's a large rectangular space with no walls or cubicles separating anyone from anything. There are four long tables with clearly marked chairs around them, one for each expert and manager needed.

The technology
Each wall of the new center is covered in projectors, televisions and monitors. One wall, closest to the "People and Pets" table, has three TVs, each turned to a major news channel. The main wall, which spans the length of the room, has a huge projector at its center with two slightly smaller ones flanking it, displaying myriad data, maps, lists, social media and other real-time communications tools.
Another, and very important, addition to the walls is a Smart Board that displays a map of the county. A highlighter tool, about as big as a channel changer, can color in different spots on the map to correlate with different situations. The map is instantly transmitted to the field, where emergency responders are waiting for a variety of updates, such as current evacuation areas.
A radio room where scanners of all channels listen for vital information during a crisis is to the side of the main center; those inside listen to about 90 percent of the chatter among responders and those sending information to them.
"Our team is built to be multi-disciplinary," Fey said, "and really represents a lot of different agencies and specialties. And that's what gives you power in an EOC — a lot of experts in the same room."
The room, Fey said, serves three main functions: taking care of people, pets and livestock; sharing information with the public, partners, responders and dispatch; and coordinating the operations and logistics of the response.

What it can do
"One of the limitations with the old technology was that you really had to choose what information went to what computer," Fey said. "So it was tough, because you may have someone from Road and Bridge who has a list of road closures, and they want to project that to the room, and you had to send it to here and there and then to the projection. So it really wasn't that efficient. The technology we have in here — literally any computer can send (information) to any of these devices on the wall, which is really important."
Any device with access to the server, be it smart phone, computer or tablet, can send data to the main projectors, he said. An item of particular or immediate importance will appear on the main projector.
"A lot of what this is is about information sharing," Fey explained.
And there's a lot of information to share — those in the operations room are simultaneously watching everything from the Weather Channel to the sheriff's Twitter feed.
"The theory is that if you're monitoring social media, it essentially makes everyone out there first responders. So, for example, if there was suddenly an influx of people tweeting that there was a fire at Southwest Plaza mall, you'd want to pull it up immediately."
"It's (tricky)," he said. "You want all the information you can possibly get, but then you have to be able to weed through it."
And it's not just technical efficiency that the department had in mind with the new space.
"There are things you don't necessarily think about," Fey said, "like sustainability and morale and stuff like that. I mean, the reality is that during the floods we were activated for 11 days straight. So we had people putting in 16-hour days, day after day.  And quite frankly, you get pretty tired. Just having a little more room, a little bit better environment, the ability to have some sun coming in here, having the little kitchen area right there if you want to get a drink, and not having to wander the building (makes it a lot better)."
And the upgraded technology provides sustenance for the heart of the operation.
"From an efficiency standpoint, we're not limited by the technology anymore. The technology really has the capability for us now. So what's imperative on us is to take this technology and utilize it efficiently."