County leaders and emergency personnel say they now have the facilities to manage emergencies and disasters in a self-sustaining command center.
On Monday, the Columbia County Emergency Management Agency and 311 Call Center moved into their new Emergency Operations Center in the former State Farm Insurance building on Ronald Reagan Drive in Evans.
The more than 7,000-square-foot facility features advanced emergency communications equipment and work stations for emergency responders from the cities, county, state and federal agencies and utility companies.
"In a nutshell, we now have a facility with the space, equipment and functional areas, security, interoperability, and flexibility, to effectively coordinate a response to an emergency, whether it be a small emergency or a major disaster," said Pam Tucker, the county's emergency services director.
Tucker said her department and other county officials have worked for four years to make the new center possible. The $1.1 million facility was paid for through the 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax.
By renovating an existing structure instead of constructing a new building, Tucker said, the county was able to invest heavily in a new electronic infrastructure and a larger facility at a lower cost.
The facility was designed under Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines to be centrally located, outside of a floodplain and major flight paths, and is a model for what area governments should have, Tucker said.
"You can't imagine what's through those doors looking from the outside," she said.
The Emergency Operations Center features a communications and warning center with multiple communications consoles and links to area and state agencies and amateur radio consoles. It has satellite communications capabilities, weather monitoring stations, closed-circuit direct telephone links to 911 and the ability to active the Emergency Alert System.
The center is in a centralized location to disseminate emergency information and warnings to the public, command responding authorities and utilities, analyze data and coordinate with neighboring jurisdictions, Tucker said. It has kitchen, shower and dormitory facilities available for extended emergency situations.
"It will enable people in these department head positions, not just locally but state-level (and federal) agencies, to make good decisions together," she said.
One key feature of the center is a ventilation system that can be completely sealed off from the outside in such a case as occurred with the Graniteville train disaster in which nine people died, many from exposure to chlorine gas.
"If there is a chemical leak it won't shut us down," Tucker said.
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service can be dispatched to the center to directly monitor shifting weather conditions and help emergency personnel direct action if such an disaster were to occur, she said.
"Weather is so critical in determining what actions should be taken," she said.
On a day-to-day basis, officials say the Emergency Operations Center will provide ample space for EMA operations, the 311 call center and training of Community Emergency Response Team members and new recruits.
The county EMA's former location in Building E of the Evans Government Center will be the home of the Board of Elections after a renovation and the November elections, Tucker said.
At 10 a.m. on Aug. 18, the EMA will conduct a dedication of the Emergency Operations Center with special guest Charlie English, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. The event is open to the public.
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