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Portland’s Preparedness Is Amplified by New Coordination Center

After years of running emergency operations out of a training classroom in the 911 building, city officials now have a stand-alone facility.

by / March 10, 2014
Portland’s new Emergency Coordination Center opened in late January. Photo courtesy of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management

In the event of a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake or other natural or man-made disaster, Portland, Ore., is now more equipped than ever to respond to the emergency. After years of running emergency operations out of a training classroom in the 911 building — which in some cases would take hours to set up into an EOC, using precious time — city officials now have a stand-alone Emergency Coordination Center (ECC).

The need for the facility was identified in 2007 when Portland’s setup was tested during the federal Top Officials Exercise, a full-scale simulated emergency scenario. Dan Douthit, public information officer for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), said the after-action review of that exercise made it clear that something needed to change. From there the bureau began identifying what features should be included and how different needs could be met by the ECC.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the $19.8 million facility opened in eastern Portland in late January. Three of the key needs were to make the building seismically sound, high tech and sustainable. To prepare for the possibility of a long-duration earthquake, which can be expected from the Cascadia subduction zone, buckling restrained braces run diagonally across the walls to act as shock absorbers. They were left exposed to make it easy for damage to be assessed after an event. In addition, the computer servers are on base isolators, which like the braces, absorb shock. The facility’s location was also selected from a seismic perspective. Douthit said the location’s soil didn’t require much mitigation; PBEM avoided areas where the soils are highly liquefiable.

“We think this is one of the most seismically sound buildings in Oregon, and we see it not just as an asset for the people of Portland but for the entire region,” Douthit said. “We’re using this site as an opportunity to work closely with our partners, so if something happens on the Oregon coast or elsewhere in the region, this building could benefit the response to that.”

Called the facility’s “focal point” by PBEM Director Carmen Merlo (see the video below), a 12-monitor matrixed video wall is one of the coordination center’s highlights. The video wall allows everyone working in the center to see the same information, whether it’s a map or other important data. In addition, the workstations in the area are arranged to follow the Incident Command System, an executive conference room provides space for the mayor and disaster policy council to meet, and the Joint Information Center allows staff to harness social media while also reaching out to the press and public. Communications technology includes a new 150-foot radio tower. “We have the ability to communicate on any radio system that’s in use in the region,” Douthit said.

And in terms of being sustainable, the ECC was built to be able to function off the grid “for some time,” he said. Among common features like relying on natural light and employing an energy-efficient heating and ventilation system, the building also reuses rainwater — the green roof collects rain and uses it to flush toilets. Douthit said PBEM has applied for LEED gold certification, one step below the highest rating of platinum.

But why is it called a “coordination center” instead of the commonly heard “operations center?” Douthit said the facility acts as a coordination center on a daily basis; staff members from PBEM as well as some from the Water Bureau work out of the building full time, ensuring that the systems work and providing training. But in the event that an emergency or other situation happens that requires public safety responders to run their operations from the building, the ECC would be treated as an emergency operations center. “It’s part of how we would ramp up operations,” said Douthit. “Most of the time, outside of perhaps an earthquake or a large-scale disaster, it would be an ECC.”

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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