Emergency center prepares city

In the event of a terrorist attack, the eighth floor of a nondescript building at 14th and U streets is the city’s coordination point.

Through several of the building’s secured doors lies the Emergency Communication Center and the Emergency Operations Center. Renovated after Sept. 11 with $3.9 million in Homeland Security Department grant money, the facilities are designed to measure the pulse of the city and respond to any crisis that might arise.

The operations center serves as a forum where police, military, healthcare, education and neighborhood leaders can provide each other with information to best handle a situation.

“The District of Columbia is at the top of the list for terrorism,” said Emergency Management Director Barbara Childs-Pair on a recent tour of the facility.

During most of the fall semester, some financial institutions in the Foggy Bottom area were under an orange terrorism alert. Officials at the Emergency Management Agency were able to use their communication capabilities to coordinate with GW and security agencies to open certain streets to trucks for move-in, Childs-Pair said.

“We helped ensure that trucks did not have to be unloaded to be inspected,” she said.

The communications center is staffed constantly in three eight-hour shifts. Emergency management employees have access to a variety of data and are able to disseminate pertinent information to the public.

The rectangular room has a line of workstations facing 10 flat panel televisions. The televisions are controlled from the workstations and can be programmed to show anything from the evening news to any traffic camera in the city. The communications center takes calls from citizens about problems and outages in the city and then relays this information to the proper agency. The center is also connected to the National Warning System, Washington Warning System and police and fire channels.

Communications center officials keep an in-depth and up-to-date listing of pager, cellular and land phone numbers of anyone they might need to contact. The workstations also have an instant messaging system that connects to the area’s most popular radio and TV stations.

If the communications center detects a major emergency, Childs-Pair makes a decision to activate the operations center and contacts the mayor. During the recent orange alert, there were street closings and barricades that required the center to notify agencies such as the fire department to avoid closed streets. Though the city is back under a yellow terrorism alert, the agency has not drastically changed its role.

“Basically what you have is the vigilance part never ends, the cameras never go down,” Childs-Pair said.

The operations center is a large square room with six banks of workstations. Each bank has a specific classification: Emergency Services, Infrastructure Support, Community Services, Law Enforcement, Operation Support and Information Planning. George Nu?ez, the University’s executive associate of public safety and emergency management, usually represents GW and other D.C. area universities at a workstation marked University Consortium. Nu?ez did not return phone calls and an e-mail for comment.

John Petrie, GW’s assistant vice president for public safety and emergency management, said the city “designated us 20 months ago to be the central point of contact (for universities) during an emergency in the District.”

Each workstation has a computer, telephones that can work through a power outage and telephones that can contact radios carried by EMA personnel and trained community leaders.

All workstations face a wall of two dozen 50-inch Mitsubishi rear projection television cubes. These flat panel displays can carry 14 different televisions simultaneously, 137 traffic cameras and video feeds from satellites, helicopters or the Internet. As the point of contact for the University Consortium, GW plays an important role in the EMA’s plan for getting information to D.C.’s colleges and universities, Petrie said.

“We get information by phone, by e-mail or by their alert system,” he said. “(Then) we have listservs that have my counterparts and their subordinates’ e-mail addresses and we send that information out over these listservs.”

The operations center was last activated when the city was nearly shut down for former President Ronald Regan’s state funeral. It has been activated in the past for events such as hurricanes and tornados.

In the back corner of the operations center, the mayor has a secure conference room. This room features a “hardened” combination lock door and walls. Mayor Anthony Williams has a wall with a blue backdrop, U.S. flag and D.C. flag for news conferences.

Oftentimes, the center is busy training new people on the equipment or refreshing and updating staff members.

“The mayor and city administrators are actively involved in working drills,” Childs-Pair said. “The mayor has called for 15 no-notice drills in six months.”

Workers are expected to be available at any time during an operations center activation. The mayor called a no-notice drill last month on a Sunday morning at 10 a.m. GW also plays a role in these drills.

“When they do drills, we are normally in the command center and discuss with them how we would share information,” Petrie said.

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