It’s not entirely good news that the state needs to triple the size of its Emergency Operations Center in West Frankfort. The inadequacy of the existing facility in the Boone National Guard Center became painfully apparent during the ice storm of 2009, which left parts of Kentucky without electric power for weeks. The work got done but the building was so crowded with government officials and media that the Division of Emergency Management decided it had to be expanded.
The new EOC, mostly paid for with federal money and connected to the old building, is scheduled for completion by June 1, 2013. The existing center was considered state of the art 30 years ago – able to survive a nuclear explosion or a mammoth earthquake like the one that reshaped parts of western Kentucky two centuries ago. Its successor will be bigger and perhaps better as well.
We’d like to think this generally peaceful commonwealth will never really need such a redoubtable fortress. But as experience reminds us, disasters happen. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left communities everywhere feeling less secure. Terrorists may never choose Kentucky as the venue for a violent political statement, but it has to be ready in the event they do.
Natural disasters like the ice storm are a more familiar threat. Almost everyone has noticed that severe storms and generally unstable weather have grown in recent years. Many scientists believe conditions will worsen in times to come because of ongoing climate change. And when meteorological events spin out of control, looting and civil unrest sometimes follow. The Boone Center, a military post, is equipped to repel attacks, if need be.
While most small towns have nothing comparable, Frankfort has a second EOC of its very own. Does the state compound makes city’s installation redundant? When the Kentucky Emergency Management agency mobilized its facility during the 2009 ice storm, the city EOC, in the $11 million Public Safety Facility on Second Street, got its first real test. The ice storm wasn’t as bad here as in western Kentucky, but thousands of residents in Frankfort and Franklin County went without power for days. Over that period, local officials used their center as a command base that directed people to emergency shelters, helped stranded motorists and assisted in the delivery of prescription medicines. Mayor Gippy Graham spent the better part of two days there and said he was impressed by the facility, a pet project of his predecessor, Mayor Bill May.
In calmer weather, the Public Safety Facility has been – and sometimes still is – in the eye of a political storm surrounding its cost overruns and sepulchral architecture. Former City Manager Ken Thompson, in his 2008 campaign for a City Commission seat, complained that the building provided luxurious accommodations for Frankfort’s ruling elite. He said the city would have been better off keeping the money and making arrangements instead to share the state’s emergency center.
May responded that the city would not have been allowed to use the state headquarters during emergencies and the conference room at City Hall, which had served the purpose previously, was woefully inadequate.
Now that state government is expanding its own EOC, city officials should ask Emergency Management whether it would be willing to make the new building available during local emergencies to complement or even supersede the municipal disaster center. If so, the city might find ways to adapt its own space to other functions.