Cook County unveils emergency command center During a statewide disaster drill, Cook County unveils its new command center
Friday, June 19, 2015
Chicago Tribune by Phil Kadner
Cook County unveils emergency command center
Cook County unveiled its new "state-of-the-art" emergency operations center in Oak Forest on Friday as part of "Operation Power Play," a simulated statewide disaster in which 28 tornadoes touch down across the state in the middle of a weeklong heat wave of temperatures in excess of 100 degrees.
It turned out to be a perfect day for a disaster drill with temperatures in the 70s under partly cloudy skies, as about 200 utility company officials, civic leaders, government administrators and people from emergency response agencies were given a tour of all the latest technology participating organizations had on display for "the day no one wants to see happen."
Walgreens unveiled modular, mobile pharmacies it can load onto flatbed trucks, or drop from a helicopter, into disaster sites to dispense or refill prescription drugs for people who have lost their medications. ComEd gave tours of its command and control center, designed to organize repairs when electricity goes out in a large area and its representatives explained they now have a drone (with more to come) that will fly over devastated regions and identify not only where the greatest damage to power lines has occurred, but assist repair crews in getting there quickly. It's control center has the ability to establish communications via satellite when telephone land lines and cell towers are down.
Cook County's emergency operations center is located on the first two floors and in a basement in a remodeled building on the grounds of the massive 300-plus acre former Cook County Hospital site at 159th Street and Cicero Avenue and its serves as a command center not only for police and fire operations, but Cook County's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the event of a terrorist attack. Federal grants totaling $9.6 million the department obtained helped fund the command center, along with $10.5 million from the Cook County Department of Capital Planning and Asset Management, for a total cost of more than $20 million, according to a spokesman for Cook County.
The control center's most prominent feature is a 37-foot by 7.5-foot wall of video display screens (the largest in Cook County outside of Soldier Field, officials boasted) that can provide live maps of weather events, along with Internet displays and eventually video from traffic cameras along roads throughout the state, I was told. An Internet service offers feeds from road sensors of weather temperatures as they occur, so that people in the control center can more quickly trace the path of a storm as its happening.
The room is equipped with 32 seated positions with computer network access and phones, where, I was told, officials from utility companies, representatives from impacted municipalities, and Cook County emergency response coordinators would sit together and coordinate their strategy as a disaster unfolded.
As members of a tour group watched the video display wall, an official pointed out a display on a screen where a duty roster of a law enforcement agency appeared and explained that, eventually, the command center would be able to access duty rosters for every police and fire department agency in Cook County so people at the command center would identify the names, responsibilities and ranks of every person on duty in a municipality in a crisis.
Never before has Cook County had a command center of this nature to coordinate a response to a disaster, according to a county spokeswoman.
The scenario for "Operation Power Play" (named long before the Blackhawks' most recent Stanley Cup run, I was assured repeatedly) involved 28 tornadoes touching down throughout the state: 10 in northern Illinois, 10 in central Illinois and 8 in southern Illinois. As if that weren't bad enough, the disaster has occurred in the midst of a weeklong streak of 100-degree days. Remarkably, there have been only three fatalities reported thus far, along with 515 people injured. More than 2,000 houses have been destroyed, 3,500 houses have been damaged and the hardest hit areas are southeastern Cook County, central DuPage County, northeastern Will County, central Peoria and central Mt. Vernon.
More than 1.2 million ComEd customers are without power, 1,500 electric poles are down and five ComEd substations damaged. Several major highways throughout the state are impassable and a Metra train has derailed in New Lenox, colliding with another train carrying hazardous materials.
I was informed the disaster drill involved state, county and municipal agencies involved in disaster planning, along with all the major utility companies, the Red Cross and other organizations that would try to help out in such a crisis.
You would think people would be shouting instructions like mad in such a situation, or at the very least there would be a flurry of frenzied activity. I witnessed nothing of the kind.
"We want people to remain calm in a crisis," a county spokeswoman told me.
Sure. But this was more like Floyd's barber shop in Mayberry on a really slow day.
I realize lots of different tour groups were making their way through the command center and officials were being very kind in explaining stuff to people, but with 10 tornadoes I saw only one person working on a computer and no evidence of any real disaster drill. With 10 tornadoes striking northern Illinois alone only hours earlier, in theory, I couldn't imagine the crisis had passed. Perhaps we were kept away from the real situation room, but then what's the point of the fancy control center? And if you really want to simulate a disaster, why not take tour groups through an "active" control room to simulate the inevitable chaos that would take place in the event of an emergency?
Enough negativity. I am told Cook County has conducted 7,000 training sessions for first responders to make sure they know what the disaster plan is in the event of a crisis and open the lines of communications between those who would need to talk to each other when things get really bad before that happens.
James Joseph, 33, Gov. Bruce Rauner's appointee to head the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, made a short speech and seemed like an impressive guy. The president of ComEd, Anne Pramaggore, and the utility company's chief operating officer, also spoke and talked about how dedicated they are to making sure electrical service is restored as quickly as possible in disaster areas.
Without electricity there is no air conditioning in summer, no heat in winter, no power to run gas pumps or run water plants. Nursing homes and hospitals may have to evacuate patients unless their needs are immediately addressed.
Marcus Estrada, chief of logistics for the Cook County Department of Homeland Security, gave an impressive presentation while standing inside a semi-trailer used to provide emergency supplies to response teams.
He explained the county has acquired a number of vehicles, including three used Humvees, for use in disasters. In researching past disaster events, he explained, it was determined that the vehicles of first responders often became disabled trying to reach victims. Tires of emergency response vehicles. were flattened after running over debris and the responders found themselves stranded.
The Humvees, he said, have tires that can more easily run through debris and travel through areas deemed impassable. They could be used to come to the aid of emergency crews, bringing them supplies, or ferrying them out of disaster areas.
The Red Cross had a mobile station equipped with wireless and charging stations for cell phones, having discovered in emergencies that people want to be able to communicate with friends and family, but have no access due to power outages.
It was an amazing array of impressive stuff, which you may deem far too costly and extravagant. Unless, some day, you need it.
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