Mass. community's $500,000 disaster command center opens

The Patriot Ledger

QUINCY, Mass. — Imagine a suicidal pilot crashing a plane into a liquefied natural gas tanker off the coast of Boston, creating a huge fireball and prompting a mass evacuation.

Quincy city leaders quickly assemble inside an emergency command center, where they monitor live video of mounting traffic on Interstate 93 and a growing number of evacuees getting off the Red Line and flooding into Quincy Center.

By radio, officials relay information to authorities trying to control the exodus. In a situation room, the mayor and other decision-makers coordinate how best to handle the evacuation with counterparts in other cities.

Officials also hope to tap into about 20 cameras with zoom capability in the coming months. No decisions have been reached, but officials say likely locations include city hall, T stations, key coastal areas, and major thoroughfares.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness officials have stressed the importance of a coordinated, regional response to catastrophic events. With the opening of a federally funded emergency command center, Quincy officials say they are now better equipped to orchestrate such a response.

"We've just started the initial training," said Thomas Gorman, the city's emergency management director. "But it's going to give us the chance to better coordinate efforts between departments during a major emergency."

The city is one of nine, including Boston, that has or will set up emergency operation centers as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative, administered by the Department of Homeland Security.

The command center, which was brought online last week, is roughly the size of a classroom. It has a dozen workstations with laptops, telephones and radio dispatch equipment that face two flat-screen monitors and a pull-down projection screen. Next door is a small conference room.

Gorman said the center would be used during incidents requiring a response from multiple city departments, such as a hurricane or major snowstorm. He estimated $500,000 in federal grant money was spent on the command center. Police asked that its location not be disclosed.

While the center is operational, many of its capabilities are not. For example, it's designed to monitor strategic locations in the city, but no video cameras have been installed.

Officials also lack the money needed to inter-connect with the eight other command centers in the Boston area.

Those cities include Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, Somerville and Winthrop.

Police and fire officials say they see plenty of opportunities to use the command center. For example, to coordinate traffic during the Christmas parade, coordinate snow removal and monitor major accidents and fires.

As a drill this month, officials may monitor a large-scale volleyball tournament at Marina Bay and the August Moon festival downtown.

"The biggest plus is that it's brought the city's departments together," Deputy Fire Chief Gary Smyth said, noting it has been rare for police and firefighters to work as one.

Police Lt. Donald Greenwood, co-director of the department's Homeland Security unit, said the city is now "relevant on a regional level" when it comes to emergency response.

He said Homeland Security grants have enabled the city to train a 28-man scuba dive unit, purchase protective clothing for a chemical disaster, and buy radios that allow every police officer and firefighter to communicate with one another.

"This has taken us from the 20th to the 21st century," Greenwood said.

Quincy has received $1.2 million in training and equipment grants since the Urban Area Security Initiative began in 2003, according to figures from the mayor's office.

The program, which supports 58 urban areas, is designed to help suburbs in metropolitan regions collect a share of Homeland Security money.

Greenwood said the city next hopes to create a K-9 division for bomb prevention and install the surveillance cameras.

Mayor William Phelan said "clear lines" would have to be drawn defining how the cameras are used.

"We want to know exactly what they're going to be used for," Phelan said.

John P. Kelly may be reached at jkelly@ledger.com

The city is one of nine, including Boston, that has or will set up emergency operation centers as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative, administered by the Department of Homeland Security.  
Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger

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