Groundbreaking halted by tornadoes gets under way

By Lauren Hallow Published:

Government and military representatives officially broke ground Tuesday on the state’s new $9.8 million Emergency Operations Center that officials say will help them be more efficient during natural disasters and state and federal emergencies. 

“(The new facility) will allow us for the first time to bring together all of the emergency personnel people under one roof to be able to work as a single team, (which will be) a whole lot easier than the way we’re spread out across Frankfort today,” Adjutant Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini said at the groundbreaking ceremony. 

“(The people who work in the EOC) have been kind of sitting on top of each other for the past four-and-a-half years, and we’ve had incredible challenges in order to get things done.” 

The new 26,150 square-foot center at Boone National Guard Center will connect to the current EOC and can house 150 emergency personnel. 

The official groundbreaking ceremony was scheduled for March, when crews actually started construction, but it was postponed after emergency officials were forced to deal with the aftermath of the March 2 tornadoes. 

Several counties were declared federal disaster areas after the tornadoes destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and left 22 dead across the state.

The tornadoes marked the 11th time in the past four years that Kentucky’s been hit with a federally declared national disaster, and officials said Tuesday those tornadoes were a reminder of the need for an updated facility.

“If we had the tornadoes again, our communication system’s going to be right beside us,” said Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, director of Kentucky’s Division of Emergency Management. “We’ll be able to gather more information, make better decisions, move out faster.”

The current EOC, which handled about 5,000 incidents last year and takes calls daily at all hours, has only about 30 seats available. 

The necessity of a larger EOC has been discussed for some time, but it became apparent during the ice storm of 2009, which cut off electricity in parts of Kentucky for about a month. More than 100 counties declared an emergency, and the Kentucky Army National Guard fully mobilized in response.

During the ice storm, some operations and meetings with state and federal officials spilled into the EOC’s hallways and five nearby buildings because of crowding.

To make sure that doesn’t happen again, the new building will include several “breakout rooms” so different organizations can remain under the same roof while still being able to separate and conduct meetings with their own departments, said David Altom, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs.

The current EOC was built during the Cold War era in the 1970s and, as a product of the time, can withstand nuclear fallout, officials said. 

The new facility will be engineered to withstand an F4 tornado and winds up to 200 mph. 

The new EOC will also receive upgrades in technology. When the current EOC was built, the only “digital” aspect was the building’s phone system, Heltzel said. 

Officials said the new center will be equipped with the most up-to-date communications technology, including a new larger server that will allow for more internal networks and faster communication.  

The new center will also meet modern counter-terrorism requirements, such as concrete barriers near entry points. 

Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson was on hand and acknowledged Kentucky’s increase in natural disasters and the greater need for more coordination between responding agencies. He said the new center will be the “lifeline” to Kentucky counties during natural disasters and state and federal emergencies. 

“When the emergency management team moves into this new facility, they’ll have the room in the time of crisis to bring all the state and federal partners under one roof to communicate and coordinate responsive efforts with greater effectiveness,” Abramson said. “This is what government’s all about, this is what we do best.”

Officials said 98 percent of the project is being paid for through federal grants. The center is set to be complete by June 1, 2013.

Staff Writer Kevin Wheatley contributed to this report.


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