High-tech trailer ready for disasters

High-tech trailer ready for disasters

1February 2005

publishedby www.dailyinterlake.com  

New disaster center only one of its kind in Montana

In the event of an earthquake, wildfires, avalanche or any other disaster, a new command center is ready for local emergency services.

The mobile emergency operations center takes communication technology to an unparalleled level in the state, according to Randy Feller.

“People in Flathead County need to know about this,” he said.

Feller is chief of Smith Valley fire department and the operations section chief for the Community Protection Incident Management Team. The team represents, among other agencies, the 19 fire departments in the county.

Using federal preparedness money channeled through the Office of Emergency Services, the team bought a trailer, stripped it and installed whiz-bang technology.

“Without Alan [Marble’s OES] office this couldn’t have happened,” Feller said.

Fees from the Flathead County Fire Service Area — those areas outside actual fire district boundaries that still receive protection — are another funding source.

If Hungry Horse Dam collapses, a forest fire on the scale of the 2003 Wedge Canyon or Robert fires breaks out, or an earthquake flings the brickwork from Kalispell’s Main Street businesses into 10 feet of rubble, the command center can go.

It takes a team of eight to 12 people to move the trailer where it’s needed and set it up, Marble said.

Wherever it goes, it brings some of federal-management agencies’ favorite terms — “interagency” and “interoperability.”

That means that in an emergency, the U.S. Forest Service could talk to the county sheriff’s office or call a rural fire department, even if they happen to use different radio frequencies or equipment.

If the rest of the county is out of power, the command center won’t be. It runs off internal and external generators.

It offers a critical link to the world outside the Flathead and connections, just as vital, to local volunteers and professionals at the site of a disaster.

It is the only one of its kind in Montana, Feller said. And it is, Marble said, “20 years ahead of where the Flathead’s at.”

After about six months and thousands of hours of donated labor, Feller and Marble showed off the nearly complete command center Saturday.

Its value is probably around $350,000, they said.

It’s designed with redundancies, so if one system fails, another can take over. It has its own base antennas and solar- and battery-powered repeaters so it doesn’t have to rely on others that could be damaged or inoperable.

During the Wedge Canyon Fire, Feller said, emergency personnel on the fire up the North Fork were unable to talk by radio to anyone in the Flathead Valley.

In Essex, he said, about half the time even satellite phones don’t work. That communication problem won’t happen again.

The facility has Internet capabilities, run off of satellite. Using the county’s GIS Web site, workers can download maps. That means, in the case of a wildland fire, they can pinpoint where houses are and know where they have to go to warn people.

The information can be shown on a screen that broadcasts both inside and outside the trailer. A ramp at the back provides a platform for briefings that can use the large screen and a public-address system. That would have been helpful at the Wedge Canyon and Robert wildfires, Feller said.

Photos and real-time video should be able to be displayed at the trailer and e-mailed. That means that video shot from a helicopter could be seen immediately by people on the ground.

The communications system at the trailer is unlike anything in the state. A UHF radio allows communication with the FBI, Secret Service, other federal agencies and aircraft. A dispatch console can link people talking on different radio frequencies and also acts like a self-contained 911 dispatch center, so it can deflect calls that could swamp the county’s 911 center because of their volume in an actual emergency, Marble said.

The center’s PBX system has nine outside telephone lines and also can handle cell-phone and satellite-phone calls.

The system’s technology extends outside the walls of the center.

Cordless phone radios carried by firefighters and others have a range of 5 miles. Feller said that responders carrying GIS-enabled radios can be tracked by computer inside the center so no one will get lost in a crisis. Some radios are also encrypted so conversations can’t be picked up by others, he said.

While the futuristic-looking command center is impressive, just as remarkable is the work that went into forming an entire countywide, interagency team of responders. That’s been in the works for years.

Feller said that within an hour’s time, 250-300 trained firefighters could respond to an emergency. If they didn’t know how they’d all work together, their response would be almost meaningless.

Members of the Community Protection Incident Management Team, though, are trained and educated to work together. Public information, logistics, operations, planning and finance are all assigned and defined duties. Hazardous-materials handling, fire suppression, medical response, communications and other specialties all go together.

Marble credits the volunteers for making sure it fits and that there’s a solid, well-rehearsed plan so no one has to scramble in case of a disaster.

“I’m pretty proud of this,” Feller said.


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