JOHNSON COUNTY– County residents should be glad to hear that at least one return on their investment equals better safety for everyone.
North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm is a member of the policy board for the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC), the central facility that dispatches emergency resources and personnel from fire departments, law enforcement agencies and medical responders countywide.
Salm told the North Liberty City Council earlier this month that June’s severe weather incidents put the JECC facility and its personnel to the test, and all passed with flying colors.
“It seems like everything is working smoothly with that center, and Dave Wilson was very pleased with what he saw. We should all be glad that is working well for us,” Salm said.
Dave Wilson is Johnson County’s Emergency Management Coordinator, and his department works closely with JECC personnel and Executive Director Tom Jones to make sure emergency services are operating and dispatched smoothly to the public. Wilson, who is also a member of the JECC policy board, sent a memo to other board members and county officials to let them know how pleased he was with the center’s functionality during last month’s serious weather events.
“Anyone that questions why we spent all this money to create JECSA, JECC/JCOM, the new EOC (Emergency Operations Center), along with the P25 consolidated radio system, need only look the past three years to see the value of it in all the recent large scale events and disasters,” Wilson wrote in the memo.
There have been questions about JECC, and plenty of them.
JECC was conceived in 2005, built in 2008-2009 and went online in 2010, a $16.4 million project that was funded through a 28E agreement between the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and the cities of North Liberty, Coralville and Iowa City, as well as a countywide tax levy that changes from year to year. The facility was designed to bring all emergency dispatch services under one roof, powered with state-of-the-art technology. In its first year of operation, the budget became a moving target, the Board of Supervisors approved a levy rate lower than the policy board recommended, and the facility director resigned. JECC’s higher-than-expected cost of operations, technology maintenance and other unanticipated expenses inflated its proposed budget, drawing criticism from county officials and the public.
However, in its next two years and two new directors later, the kinks smoothed out, the budget became more predictable and communication between the JECSA board and the supervisors gained fluency in setting the annual tax levy.
So Wilson was happy to report on very successful operations during last month’s severe weather events, particularly on the day of June 25.
“We commonly have to ramp up operations when we get severe thunderstorm warnings that threaten to exceed 70 mph winds or golf ball size hail or tornados, and that was one of those days where we had severe winds and a Doppler-indicated tornado,” Wilson said in a telephone interview last week. “We had to sound the warning system and deploy multiple spotters, who saw two tornadoes; one by Tiffin and one by Solon.”
The only damage reported was to some cropland, Wilson said.
When severe weather strikes, dispatchers have to go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds, Wilson said.
“They have to make critical decisions rapidly,” said Wilson. “What area does this warning cover, what zone, how often are we setting them off; and for each additional warning or sighting we have to repeat all that, plus answer the numerous phone calls we get any time the warning sirens go off. They deal with the radio traffic, have to page out the public safety agencies for storm spotting to make sure there are extra eyes on the ground, and also to disperse the units.”
Previously, such all-hands-on-deck scenarios would take place within individual offices, and much of the time, various police departments, fire departments, the county sheriff’s office and medical response teams could not effectively communicate with one another because their radio systems did not match up.
“This June was a great example of why the consolidated center works so well,” said Wilson. “In the past, we had separate centers and everybody did things a little differently. The consolidated center has allowed us to craft those warnings more specifically to the area that is affected, and deploy resources much quicker. Everyone has better situational awareness to get those alerts out in a more timely fashion.”
Wilson recalled the scenes of the severe flooding of 2008.
“That central operation took place from the sheriff’s office in the county EOC. It was congested, crowded, and people coming in were unfamiliar with their surroundings. We were literally spread all over first floor of sheriff’s office, operating out of a squad room designed for about 25 people.”
This year’s flooding events were handled more efficiently.
“People were able to come in, work fast and efficiently, and rapidly become familiar with their surroundings because we’ve done a number of disaster drills here since we’ve opened. The facility worked great, we had a lot of space, we used many of the technology resources like video conferencing and teleconferencing. We had 50 to 60 people in the room at any given time, and outside federal agencies working in the building routinely. We were able to hold daily press conferences right in the building. In 2008 , it would have been difficult at best to accomplish what we did this time.”
This spring’s severe weather actually prompted not one but two presidential disaster declarations, which means conditions were severe enough to reach the dollar threshold that triggers the national government and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to invoke the Stafford Act, enabling Johnson County to take advantage of federal funding for protective measures and reimbursement for damage and loss.
“It’s not uncommon to have a presidential disaster declaration once every three or four years, but it’s very, very uncommon to have two of them within three months,” Wilson said. “We (at JECC) had to coordinate the emergency operations and the radio assets related to the multiple teams working to mitigate those disasters.”
It was an exercise in the facility’s touted interoperability of communications between various entities, and it went well, he said.
“We had several agencies from the state that had different radio system types, but we were able to bring those platforms over into our system, and blend into their radio communications when they were assisting us, and we did it seamlessly,” Wilson said. “For instance, the Iowa State Patrol has an aircraft. They were assisting us with damage assessment, and they were able to talk to our dispatch personnel. These options were not available in the past. It simply would not have occurred in 2008. Period. The technology didn’t exist for us.”
Ultimately, it translates to better safety for the residents of Johnson County.
“The consolidated center gives us better speed, accuracy and efficiency in getting the public information, getting the warnings out and getting public safety resources deployed in a more timely fashion,” Wilson said. “Those are things people don’t think about that have to occur, and in a rapid fashion, in order for resources to be available quickly to take care of public safety.”