New emergency-operations center unveiled

Remodeled, upgraded center is now open daily to coordinate city emergency services

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.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 20, 2013 at 10:25 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Great job Ken and team - thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by Disaster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2013 at 10:32 am

Great, but it's still in City Hall instead of an earthquake safe location.

Like this comment
Posted by Great Improvement, Wrong location.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2013 at 11:12 am

This is a good improvement, but this is the same basement that was identified in the Blue Ribbon Task Force report on the public safety facility as seismically unsound (more than ten years ago, I think). When are we going to get a seismically "sound" public safety building? Could we at least move this center to someplace safer like, maybe, Cubberley?

Like this comment
Posted by Agreed
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 20, 2013 at 11:18 am

@Great Improvement, Wrong Location: you are so right! The last thing needed in a seismic emergency is for the emergency station to be disabled!

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 20, 2013 at 11:22 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Setting up an EOC like this is as much a preparedness mindset as it is a physical location.

Ideally an EOC would be in a quake proof, flood proof and fire proof location but I would much rather have a functional EOC where this one is than not have one at all. At present this EOC's proximity to police dispatch and the city's emergency response personnel is much more important to its functionality than the potential earthquake risks involved. All disaster preparedness involves balancing risks.

And I am sure that Dueker has well prepared alternate site protocol ready to implement if this location becomes unusable.

Like this comment
Posted by Lydia Kou
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Awesome job Ken!

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Got to wonder if this EOC will ever be used? We might get another flood in 20 to 30 years, and maybe some damage from an earthquake .. but what other kinds of emergencies should we be planning for?

Clearly this activity was necessary to justify the Emergency Services Manager's salary--but if it is never used, it's hard to justify it's expense.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 20, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

PLEASE read the story BEFORE commenting!!

"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."

Like this comment
Posted by george browning
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 22, 2013 at 11:49 am

Thanks for your comments, Peter, - pertinent as always.

Thanks also to Ken and the people working on emergency preparedness. We hope we never need to activate them for the "Big One", but better to prepare and never use it than not to prepare.

Like this comment
Posted by Can't have it both ways
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 22, 2013 at 4:35 pm

The siting -- in an allegedly seismically unsafe building -- is kinda like building a flood disaster coordination center on the riverbank.

Or maybe that "seismic" alarm was just a ruse to justify a spanking new police station.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Downtown Palo Alto gets new Vietnamese eatery
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 4,228 views

More Stupid Plastic Food Things
By Laura Stec | 13 comments | 2,257 views

Operation Varsity Blues
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 8 comments | 1,644 views

State Legislature on Housing: Getting the Demos out of Democracy & with it, Accountability
By Douglas Moran | 6 comments | 1,520 views

Environmentalists will soon be fighting housing advocates over what to do with the SF Bay locally
By Diana Diamond | 16 comments | 630 views


Short story writers wanted!

The 33rd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 29. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

Contest Details