Palo Alto's Emergency Operations Center has gone from a dusty, closet-like space only staffed during emergencies to a fully functioning command center that is open every day. The upgraded center was unveiled by city officials on Thursday, Dec. 19.
The renovated center brings 21st-century solutions to a grown-up Palo Alto -- a city that must contend with security for world leaders, large sporting events, mass casualties (Stanford Hospital is a regional trauma center) and burgeoning residential and commuter populations and the problems they bring.
"We used to activate it in a disaster, but now it makes sense to keep it staffed," Office of Emergency Services Director Kenneth Dueker said.
Emergency Operations is housed in the Palo Alto Police Department's basement, next to the 911 Communications Center. Its staff monitors and plans for all hazards: from natural disasters to terrorism, and special events, such as Stanford football games or visits by the President of the United States.
The $100,000 center upgrade is Dueker's brainchild. He spent nearly a year putting the system together. The center doesn't just prepare for "what ifs." Planning includes more immediate concerns, such as oncoming storms -- and even the holiday shopping season -- and current emergencies, such as a house fire, a call for medical aid or an accident.
Dueker pointed to a large wall screen with a map covered with colored, coded dots representing the type of incident and what personnel and equipment are on scene: a car accident, a fire, a road closure or flooded street. A Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system allows fire, police, dispatch and emergency services to be much more aware of other things going on concurrently, he said.
A cluster of dots pinpointed an area near Stanford Shopping Center showing medical units and fire engines.
"When you layer things, it can get complicated. In this one area, we had holiday shopping, heavy construction and a Stanford football game," he said.
Police might beef up security around the shopping mall, add officers for traffic control or position a fire station's paramedics near a large event.
"Much of what we are doing can inform the public of risks and hazards," he said.
The emergency operations center is "the big-picture nerve center," where departments can do advanced planning and logistics on a minute-by-minute basis, if needed, said Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel.
One computer screen contains data about every area hospital and available emergency-medical resources. Nickel studied the screen.
"I can see here that LifeFlight is unavailable today if we need a helicopter," he said.
If the city faces a large emergency with 20 to 30 patients, the program helps figure out where to send them, he said.
Another screen, which is similar to the city's creek monitor webpage feeds into the National Weather Service Doppler Radar. It is used for weather predictions and the latest information about wind speed, gales, and storms. The city can plan for flooding and downed power lines, road closures and possible evacuations, he said.
Dueker said the center coordinates beyond Palo Alto's borders. The city works with Stanford, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to create "a zone of defense" that covers parts of the community when resources are stretched thin in any particular area. In a disaster, the emergency-operations center coordinates communications with Stanford University, hospitals, and the Red Cross, and with community emergency services volunteers in residential neighborhoods and business districts, he said.
Two employees work on more long-term projects, developing plans and programs to improve responses, and to plan scenarios -- frequently referred to as "threat hazards," Police Chief Dennis Burns said.
In February, the system will integrate Mountain View and Los Altos, which will build on the "mutual-aid" relationships Palo Alto has with surrounding cities. When the city has an emergency such as the Walgreen's fire, dispatchers can focus on sending police and fire units to that area, and Mountain View and Los Altos can handle service gaps not covered because of the emergency. In seconds, it can locate a needed K-9 unit or a bilingual officer, he said.
Operating the center daily rather than only during a disaster ensures that when a real disaster comes, all of the pieces will be in place -- and up to date, Burns said. Emergency operations can be an ever-shifting landscape of equipment and personnel, and neighborhood volunteers.
"It's like the Golden Gate Bridge needing to be painted from one end to the other over and over again. We need to update all of the time," he said.