Preparedness

Phone Snag Shutters Mobile County's New Emergency Operations Center as Tropical Storm Gordon Looms

Officials will once again work from the older facility that the new one was built to replace.

by Lawrence Specker, Alabama Media Group, Birmingham / September 4, 2018
A car drives through a road as it slowly begins to flood as Tropical Storm Gordon approaches on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in Dauphin Island, Ala. Boaters are evacuating to safe harbors, and motorists are fleeing barrier islands as the Gulf Coast hustles to get ready for the storm. AP/Dan Anderson

(TNS) - Tropical Storm Gordon should be the baptism for Mobile County's brand-new, state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center -- but a snag being blamed on AT&T will keep it out of commission.

"The building itself is completed and operational," said Mike Evans, deputy director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. "Our data and our phones are not up and running."

Consequently officials will once again work from the older facility that the new one was built to replace.

When county officials held a grand opening for the $10.5 million facility back on June 1, the first day of hurricane season, a common theme was that it had been a long time coming. County commissioners, EMA leaders and others have described the old EOC as being too small and lacking support for modern communications equipment.

The new one is located near the fairgrounds, putting it closer to Mobile Regional Airport and next to the county's 911 Communications Center and the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. With 31,000 square feet of space and 78 workstations, it was designed to give representatives of governmental bodies, law enforcement and medical agencies and other organizations plenty of room to coordinate their response to major disasters.

County Commissioner Connie Hudson, who spearheaded the effort to fund the new EOC, said she hadn't learned until Monday that a problem would keep it dormant as Gordon passed through the region. "I guess 'surprised' would be an understatement," Hudson said. (The county provided the bulk of the funding for the EOC, though the city of Mobile and other entities also contributed.)

"I'm not happy," she said. "Trust me, I'll be finding out more."

"We were excited about being there" the next time a hurricane threat arose, Evans said.

But more than two months after that groundbreaking, officials will be dealing with Tropical Storm Gordon from the older facility. "That's disappointing to all of us," said Kathy Eddy, director of public affairs and community services for the Mobile County Commission.

Eddy and Evans said that being stuck in the old facility shouldn't hamper storm response in this case. Gordon is a relatively small storm that's expected to pass through quickly. The old site is cramped and presents some logistical challenges, but shouldn't be a bottleneck in addressing storm-related issues.

"We're all set up here," Eddy said.

Evans said that while the old building does have vintage equipment that's less capable than modern gear, "it all works."

Meanwhile, he said, the future is tantalizingly close. Optical fiber has been run to the building, and new equipment that will use it has been installed. It just needs to be fully connected and activated, he said. Until then, the building has basic service via copper lines that were intended as backups.

Discussions with AT&T about getting past the delay have been ongoing. "We've reached out, we've reached up," Evans said.

Hudson said she'd heard a similar account from Mobile County EMA Director Ronnie Adair.

An AT&T spokesperson said, "We are working closely with the agency and expect service to be operational soon."

"I really don't understand anything taking so long," Hudson said. "Absolutely we thought it would be ready by hurricane season, and absolutely it should have been."

She said she had no doubt officials would be able to do their jobs from the old EOC one more time. "But the idea is always to be prepared," she said. "And to be prepared with the best we have available."

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