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DuPage County unveils new emergency response center

Visitors tour new DuPage County emergency commcenter.  | JCunningham~For Sun-Times Media

Visitors tour the new DuPage County emergency command center. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:09AM

There’s no trace of the black and yellow logo that during the Cold War identified a fallout shelter promising safe refuge in the wake of a nuclear attack.

That was then. The new DuPage County Emergency Operations Center is all now. It is designed to serve as a comprehensive instant-response hub if crisis pays a call on DuPage County.

“What this space as a whole does is it gives us a lot of flexibility and capability that we didn’t have before,” said Norm Sturm, the county’s director of homeland security and emergency management.

It also lets light in. The department’s former accommodations were a cramped, windowless basement known semi-affectionately as the bunker, perched on County Farm Road across from the county offices and courthouse. The basement is in a building dedicated in 1958. The aging and inefficient structure is known as “the glass box” and houses the Children’s Advocacy Center, which is also slated to move to new quarters sometime in late 2013.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is really a throwback,’” said County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, describing his first visit to the former crisis command center.

That’s a benevolent description for those who worked in the old place, where 1970s-era shag carpeting covered a wall in one room to help muffle outside sound. Sturm and David Gervino, emergency management coordinator, said the generator in the old facility was of such a vintage era that making repairs demanded scavenging parts from old tugboats.

“It was in need of restoration,” Sturm said mildly. “The (heating and cooling system) was actually coils in the wall that would heat up.”

Rather than throw good money after bad, officials decided the former DuPage Juvenile Detention Center would make a perfect new home for the emergency management division. Sturm said the move was initiated before last year’s controversial County Board decision to close the then-underutilized youth home and move its operations to the Kane County Juvenile Justice Center.

It was a “perfect storm,” he said, that made the new headquarters possible: space became available; some $1.14 million in grant money came in to pay for the transformation, along with $330,000 provided by the county; and there was “the will to do it.”

The county hosted a grand opening for the $1.5 million facility Tuesday morning, but staff members began moving into the upgraded headquarters in mid-May, just after the NATO conference in Chicago.

The relocation proved fortunate several weeks later, when torrential rains and fierce gales took down power lines in the midst of a six-week stretch of oppressive heat. At one point more than half of the county was without electricity, and for several days, thousands remained without lights, refrigeration and air conditioning.

“One of the most challenging things that we’ve had since we got here was July 1,” Sturm said.

From that Sunday morning until the following Thursday evening, for about 100 continuous hours, the center was constantly in operation. The special response included representatives from ComEd, who set up in a conference area separated from the control room by a glass wall.

Gervino said when emergency arises, two staff members initially are called in to activate the Emergency Operations Center and start up the communication network by “push-out messaging” to public safety entities as well as animal control, the county jail and other agencies that need to remain in the loop.

The key is easing communication among responders and coordinating the exchange of information. Cutting-edge radio networks help with that, but human contact is just as crucial.

“Even with all the technology, there’s no substitution for face-to-face communication,” Gervino said.

The extra elbow room certainly helps, though. Gervino showed a visitor some of the many new amenities: training rooms, work stations for intern and volunteer support, a roomy kitchen area, a break room that looks out over the open space out back, a shower room and a wall of lockers that provide storage for belongings when staff members have to remain on the site for days in a row.

The bunker bears little resemblance to the new command center. Its gloomy 8,500 square feet seemed comparatively much smaller than the 10,000 square feet covered by the new center.

“(The bunker) was built in the ‘50s, in a different era, for a different purpose,” Sturm said.

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