Emergency-Ops Center Braces for Hurricanes; the Jacksonville Site Becomes a Mini-City at Its Busiest Time

Article excerpt

Byline: JESSIE-LYNNE KERR

When a disaster threatens Jacksonville and its Emergency Operations Center activates to the highest Level I, it's like a mini-city operating on the fourth floor of the fortress-like fire department headquarters building on Julia Street.

This is what the city is prepared for with last week's storms finally about over and next up hurricane season June 1 to Nov. 30.

Sitting at tables arranged around three sides of a large conference room will be the executive group -- the mayor flanked by the sheriff and the fire and rescue director and joined by about 20 other key officials from across agencies and departments.

The mayor becomes the incident commander, said Marty Senterfitt, a fire and rescue chief who is in charge of the Emergency Preparedness Division and serves as the deputy incident commander.

The mayor and executive group are backed up by hundreds behind the scene and out on the streets organized into four sections -- operations, logistics, planning and finance/administration.

The operations section includes emergency services, the Sheriff's Office, firefighting, health and medical, hazardous materials, human services, sheltering, bulk distribution, mass care, temporary housing, animal issues, infrastructure, public works, utilities, telecommunications, corporate recovery and transportation.

Or, as Senterfitt describes them, "people out doing stuff."

The operations people are supported by the logistics groups that provide them with the tools and equipment to do their jobs as well as food, ground support, communications, fuel, facilities, donations, supplies and operate a volunteer reception center.

They also are supported by the planning section that documents the work done before, during and after the disaster, does damage assessment and provides resources.

The last section is finance/administration, which keeps track of time, costs, compensation claims and procurement so the city is fully documented in a timely manner to obtain reimbursement of expenses from FEMA, Senterfitt said.

At full Level I activation, officials will be working 24 hours a day every day until the threat passes. They will give periodic reports to the public via the media on the local situation such as shelter openings, bridge closings and the withdrawal of emergency vehicles from the streets when winds reach dangerous speeds.

Senterfitt said Jacksonville operates differently than most emergency operations centers, which focus on the operational side and are organized as emergency support function models.

He said Jacksonville developed the incident command model for use during the 2005 Super Bowl and it worked so well and had such accountability that it was adopted for use in managing emergencies.

While some people may resent being asked to evacuate when a storm threatens, Senterfitt said, "I do not have the right to gamble with people's lives."

At the lowest tier of activation, Level III, the Emergency Preparedness Division staff of about 18 take a watchful approach. Members monitor during regular business hours as they have for the recent bout of Swine flu to see if cases are reported in Jacksonville, according to Maggie Bulin, assistant management improvement officer and deputy director of the division.

If the situation merits bringing in outside agencies to assist with response to an event, the center goes to a Level II activation, Bulin said.

"If we had experienced a significant number of Swine flu cases, we would have gone to Level II and brought in the health department," she said. …