With the busiest part of the hurricane season upon us, Swansboro commissioners are continuing discussion on the future of a town Emergency Operations Center. Most recently, at the meeting of Aug. 23, commissioners received a report from emergency services officials on the role of an EOC.
During Hurricane Florence in 2018, it became apparent that the Swansboro Public Safety Facility was inadequate to serve as an EOC for a storm event stronger than a Category 1 hurricane. Subsequent investigations by structural engineers have verified that. (See related story.)
As a result, the town has entered into an agreement with Swansboro United Methodist Church to utilize space in Building 2 on the church campus for an EOC.
In the meantime, Swansboro has been looking into options for establishing its own EOC by either improving the Public Safety Facility or another town building, buying property and building a new facility or partnering with another local government for a shared facility.
Dave Degnan, chief of the Swansboro Fire Department, and Ken Jackson, chief of the Swansboro Police Department, provided the commissioners with a detailed explanation of an EOC, its purpose and the role it plays.
The meeting took place remotely, utilizing the Zoom platform.
Degnan took on the first part of the PowerPoint presentation, explaining that routine management of government “differs greatly” from emergency operations.
“During an emergency, effective decision-making relies on leaders’ ability to collect emergency-related information, which requires close coordination between key officials from a variety of agencies and departments,” he noted.
Key operations for the EOC include gathering and providing information, identifying and addressing issues and providing internet connectivity ensuring interoperable communication.
A central facility – an EOC – where these operations can properly take place, is essential for emergency response and recovery, Degnan said.
“An EOC is a physical location from which leaders of a jurisdiction or organization coordinate information and resources to support on-scene operations,” he said.
The EOC may be housed in either a temporary or permanent facility. But, either way, staff security and protection of communications and support systems are critical.
In terms of planning for a future EOC, Degnan noted that sites should be expandable to meet different contingencies.
An EOC needs to house adequate staffing specific to each emergency, according to the presentation. “Hurricane Florence required a complete recall of all police, fire and EMS staff,” Degnan stated. “Early on, it became clear that the space intended for normal business was inadequate to effectively meet the needs for this emergency. A makeshift EOC was established, but was ineffective due to complete loss of communications and limited facilities.”
In planning for an EOC, the biggest consideration in site selection is avoiding potential hazards, such as floodplains. The locations should allow for strong radio transmission and reception.
“The current public safety building is not safe to staff in any hurricane rated over a Category 1,” Degnan noted in his presentation. And, of the church as an EOC, he said that site does not have dedicated communication equipment and will require external modifications.
Jackson, in his presentation, discussed the EOC in terms of equipment needs.
An EOC should have the ability to control and dispatch personnel, vehicles and equipment within the jurisdiction. Hurricane Florence, for example, caused flooding to major roadways, effectively cutting Swansboro off from outside resources and putting more responsibility on town-operated vehicles and equipment.
Town resources, the presentation pointed out, can be utilized quickly and efficiently to clear debris from roadways
An EOC would serve as a home for the staff so the EOC would not only need adequate sleeping quarters but also food and water, sanitary facilities and office supplies sufficient for the entire crew.
“The current public safety building does not house the appropriate infrastructure to support command and control operations over a normal event,” Jackson said in the presentation.
Degnan summed up the town’s current status as it relates to an emergency operations center: “I definitely believe we need an EOC,” he said. “I believe we have an EOC.”
Commissioner Frank Tursi agreed with the second part when he said, “We do have an EOC.” But then Tursi noted that the building is not adequate in the event of a hurricane stronger than a Category 1. Given that, and given the fact that Swansboro might be able to partner with another local government, he asked Degnan if it would be possible to share costs with nearby Cedar Point or Jacksonville. And, if so, “Can you do the same job you do now?”
“I suppose it would be possible.” Degnan said. But he expressed some concern about partnering. For example, he said that working with Onslow County might mean having to wait to address Swansboro’s needs during or after a storm because the county resources will be directed to the more populous areas. Plus, Degnan added, “We need a plan for future growth.”
Commissioner PJ Pugliese said partnering could leave Swansboro residents at risk.
“I do have concerns if we try to partner,” he said, because it might be difficult to reach town areas from outside the town.
In earlier presentations, the Wooten Company, the town’s engineering firm, has advised Swansboro that it could cost about $4.75 million to build an adequate EOC.
The price tag has been hard for commissioners to swallow, considering the town’s total annual budget is about $4.8 million. Obviously, there is concern that town citizens might have the same reaction.
Perhaps with that in mind, Commissioner Pat Turner suggested gauging the public’s opinion.
“Is it possible to put this on the ballot, and see if the citizens would want this?” she asked.
Chris Seaberg, town manager, said it could be possible.
Commissioner Laurent Meilleur suggested the town consider a smaller scale EOC, one without the space required to house the emergency services vehicles.
The garage adds greatly to the cost, he noted. He suggested leaving the equipment outside, in much the same way private vehicles are left out in times of hurricanes.
“I would think our fire and police vehicles could do the same,” he said.
Meilleur also said the town could consider the church to be a long-term option.
“If we hold up to this other notion (of building an EOC),” Meilleur said, “then I think Pat’s right, we need a bond.”
And, he warned, the construction will not be the end of the increase in costs to the taxpayers, there will also be an ongoing expenses for the larger building. He suggested the commissioners consider various options in a dedicated work session.
Mayor John Davis, upon learning that the town has a three-year contract with the Methodist Church, said, “We do have a little bit of time.”
“I do like the idea of … having the workshop,” Commissioner Larry Philpott said. That would be a way for the commissioners to look at other options like down-sizing the building or considering a referendum.
“I like the idea of meeting and assessing,” he said.
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Sept. 22, 2021, Tideland News.