June 29, 2011

In case of disaster: A new Emergency Operations Center at UW Tower

News and Information

Steve Charvat, director of UW Emergency Management, talks with a group of employees from Environmental Health & Safety.

Mary Levin

Steve Charvat, director of UW Emergency Management, talks with a group of employees from Environmental Health & Safety.

Until this spring, the UWs Emergency Operations Center — in a part of the dilapidated, century-old Bryant Building often used for yoga classes — might have been among the first casualties of a serious Seattle earthquake.

But you cant run a universitys emergency operations from a center that just tumbled into Portage Bay.

Its with pride, then, that UW Emergency Management opened its new Emergency Operations Center in April and is continuing to spread the word about the newly appointed, 5,000-square-foot facility, located in Building C of the UW Tower. The department was the last to move its operations to the UW Tower.

“We like to think of the University as a multinational corporation, and when disaster hits, we as employees have the responsibility to get this very large complex up and running as quickly as possible,” said Steve Charvat, director of UW Emergency Management. “Its jobs, its incomes, its livelihoods for the UWs 30,000-some employees  … the longer the down-time the more money were going to lose.

“This is basically a coordination center, because in a disaster youve got so many moving parts … and this is where we sort of put the big picture back together,” Charvat said. “If the center is doing its job, the right hand will know what the left hand is doing. … Its not tactics per se, because the people in the field know best how to fix that pipe or put that system together again.”

There will, however, be the need for making tough decisions about institutional priorities, “and this is the center where those priorities will be decided, and direction will be given.”

Televisions and smart white boards fill the walls of the new Emergency Operations Center at UW Tower.

Mary Levin

Televisions and smart white boards fill the walls of the new Emergency Operations Center at UW Tower.

Charvat stood near one of the desks in the new center as he spoke, surrounded by computers, phones and hand-held radios lined up like toy soldiers. The new center has 45 computers (the old had 12), 50 phone lines, six televisions with satellite cable, three large projection screens  and two “smart” white boards, wireless Internet, a printer for creating wall-size maps, and seats about 90 people. And in time, there will be a ham radio, for communication when other systems are down.

The C building got “a considerable amount of seismic retrofitting” that the other Tower buildings have not yet received, Charvat said. The operations center and the data center one floor up are the only areas of the whole complex that have their own backup generator.

You might think, looking around the new center, that Emergency Management has a staff of dozens — but its one of the smallest departments on campus, with 2.5 permanent, full time FTEs and one full-time temporary position. The staff are Charvat, Plans & Training Manager Siri-Elizabeth McLean; Business Continuity Manager Scott Preston; and fiscal specialist Delia Hough.

In addition to the expansive operations room and a separate room for media and communications (an update from a folding card table at the old center), the layout also includes a policy room where UW leaders would gather in the event of a disaster. “This is the only room we dont control other than in a disaster,” Charvat said. Its used for other UW training purposes at other times.

And social networking is not being ignored in this new center. Charvat said space is reserved for people to monitor such networking sites in the event of a disaster. “Sometimes … the best intelligence is, what are you hearing? What are the students, faculty and staff saying?” Charvat said.

He noted with some pride that all the new equipment and supplies in the new Emergency Operations Center — about $500,000 in all — were bought with federal Homeland Security money, much of which started becoming available after the 2001, terrorist attacks. A partnership with the City of Seattle to support each other in times of disaster makes the center “truly a regional resource.”

But, Charvat notes, “All the toys in the world do you no good unless you have trained people.”

Thats where McLean comes in. She prepares the many “responders” who work with Emergency Management representing various parts of the campus. And shes also in a training course herself, currently studying with FEMA for the certification of “master trainer.”

Upper: Siri-Elizabeth McLean, Emergency Management Plans and Training Manager.

Mary Levin

Upper: Siri-Elizabeth McLean, Emergency Management Plans and Training Manager.

“Im building a whole training program,” McLean said. “Were going to do departmental training. And I also do public outreach on campus, going into different departments.” She said while she is always willing to visit UW departments and units to advise them on emergency readiness, she hopes to do a lot more of that training at the EOC itself.

“Trying to get people to take preparedness seriously is a huge challenge because it doesnt make money — but spending a few dollars today is going to save you that much more later on.”

And readiness reminders need not all be grim: Charvat and McLean are considering hosting a Disaster Movie Night at the new center one day soon. (May we recommend Panic in the Year Zero? How about Earthquake?)

Disasters tend to break down into three categories, Charvat and McLean said: natural, human-caused and technological. The new UW Emergency Operations Center is equally ready to assist in all three scenarios, and more.

McLean said shes planning a major training exercise for September, to continue to spread the word about readiness.

“Were trying to market ourselves so that people know were here,” she said. “Were trying to spread the message, get this place up and running, and let people know how to function in here, so if we call them at 2 oclock in the morning, they can show up and jump right in — and we dont have to hold their hands.”

Learn more about UW Emergency Management and the new center online.

Note: UW Emergency Management will train new volunteer disaster responders in July and August. Email Siri-Elizabeth McLean at
sirim@uw.edu to learn more.