When Hurricanes Florence and Michael hit, and during Winter Storm Diego, the men and women of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) were not at home with their loved ones. They were working together to keep McDowell County citizens safe.
“The intent of the EOC is essentially a coordination center,” said McDowell Emergency Management Director William Kehler. “It allows representatives and decision makers from each agency to come into one room that way when questions come up and resources are needed, everybody is in the same room. You can go to that individual and they can speak for their agency. It is all about coordination, we know that close coordination translates into efficient responses to emergencies and allows the disaster to be well coordinated.”
Events are classified as in levels of one, two and three, with three being lowest priority, and one being highest. During Hurricane Alberto and Florence, the EOC was at Level 1 activation. Hurricane Michael was a Level 2.
“The EOC is only activated during high impact events,” said Kehler. “For a Level 3 it would be the emergency services staff monitoring the event, a Level 2 would be a partial activation where we will have representatives from various departments are here, and a Level 1 activation would be all of the community agencies and partners we have asked for representation at the EOC.”
In a Level 1, representatives from EMS, Fire, Rescue, Department of Transportation, N.C. Highway Patrol, Marion police, Old Fort police, City of Marion, McDowell County government, Department of Social Services, American Red Cross, Health Department, Public Works, Animal Shelter, McDowell Hospital and McDowell County Schools gather at EOC to make quick decisions on behalf of their agency. Faith-based communities, animal rescue groups and Davita Dialysis are also in on the conversations.
“It gives us a central location and allows everyone to come together,” Kehler said. “We have had over 70 different people in the room during these coordination meetings. It allows that face-to-face meeting to occur in advance of a storm. During an event when you can be in the same room as leaders from the others agencies and decisions can be made without having to place a call or send an email, or communicate back and forth via radio, it goes a long ways in making sure the incidents in the field are supported appropriately with resources or whatever requests may come in.”
The EOC building also serves as a backup 911 center as required by the state, Kehler added. The primary 911 Center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the bottom of the Marion Police Department, but in the event of high-impact situations, or a power failure, the backup 911 center is already online.
“If it rings in town, it rings here,” said Kehler. “It also gives us surge capacity. We can have three additional 911 telecommunicators here.”
EOC also houses around 3,500 square feet of office space, and over 20,000 feet of warehouse space where equipment and vehicles are stored.
“All of the equipment in the warehouse prior to coming here was sitting outside in the weather at various locations in the county,” said Kehler. “We had had some break-ins, it wasn’t secure, and the weather was taking a toll. There is over a million dollars’ worth of equipment that has been obtained through grant funding that is sitting in that warehouse.”
The command post of the EOC is laid out with operations, command branches, planning, logistics and finance, support partners and cooperators monitoring the events on different monitors to monitor power outages, stream levels, active calls in the county and traffic webcams.
“We make decisions based on that real time information whether it be evacuations or road closures,” said Kehler “We have a direct chat line with the National Weather Service to where we can communicate information back and forth. “
EOC monitors multiple weather stations throughout the county and has a direction connection with state emergency management where significant events or resource requests can be entered.
“For us to make good decisions or plan in advance, we have to have good situational awareness and that is one of the things the EOC was designed around is making sure that whoever is working on the Incident Management Team has access to real time information,” said Kehler.
The EOC also houses the Foothills Weather Network team that gives direct information to emergency officials during events.
“With the different floods we have seen, the facility has worked well during the floods of 2018 allowing the close coordination in real time,” said Kehler. “Having Foothills Weather Network with local expertise has been beneficial to our agency because they can provide a forecaster inside the EOC. During severe weather, we have had one or two tornado warnings and they are able to zoom in and give us real time information and think about where that tornado is going community and street level, and that is real important for us to be able to communicate out to field personnel so we can give them a heads up and get them into a safe location.”
Kehler said the facility has an emergency generator to power it and stocked with food, water and supplies so it can be self-sustaining.
“I think McDowell is unique with the partnerships and all the agencies,” he said. “Everyone comes together to focus on one mission of protecting lives. When the chips are down, everyone just comes together. The support we have had from citizens, private businesses and faith based is tremendous and that goes a long way.”
For more information, visit www.mcdowellem.com.