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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2007

Honolulu expands emergency center plans

 •  Traffic flow will be main concern
StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This artist's rendering shows the city's new 10-story, $73 million emergency operations center in Downtown Honolulu. Completion date is 2012.

Courtesy City and County of Honolulu

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The draft environmental assessment for the proposed traffic management and emergency operations building proposed for the corner of Alapa'i and King streets is available for public comment through Sept. 7. The city is seeking a special district use permit and a conditional use permit for the project. To review the document, call 768-8388.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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The city plans to build a $73 million, 10-story emergency operations and traffic management center in Downtown Honolulu, designed to make commutes smoother and improve communications between agencies during disasters.

The project has grown in scope since 2005 when it was first proposed as a seven-story, $28 million building for traffic management only.

When finished in 2012, the center will house offices for the fire, police and emergency medical services departments, along with emergency dispatchers, the state Department of Transportation and others.

With all those agencies under the same roof, the city says, communications with responders at the scene of a disaster will improve and departments will work more closely and quickly to get responders and residents what they need.

The same methods will be used day-to-day to monitor traffic especially during commutes which will mean getting to crashes or other incidents quicker and getting more information to drivers, officials said.

The project one of the biggest the current administration has undertaken is a key component in the city's strategy to better its disaster preparedness and response and comes as the mayor is also beefing up the newly formed city Department of Emergency Management, formerly O'ahu Civil Defense, which will be headquartered at the new building.

"We need a new facility," said John Cummings, emergency management department spokes-man. "Being able to have everyone under one roof during a disaster is really vital. We operate well as we are right now, but this is going to make things a whole lot better."

The new facility proposed for the four-acre parcel at the corner of Alapa'i and King streets will replace the cramped emergency operations center in the basement of the Fasi Municipal Building and the small, largely dated traffic management center on Ward Avenue.

Cummings said the current emergency operations center does not have the kind of live feeds and software the new facility will feature, and is also not big enough for all the players that need to be involved in disaster response.

"Right now, if we have our entire Cabinet in there and if we bring in outside agencies, it does get a little tight," he said.

REMAINS FOUND

The center was built in 1975, and was last renovated just after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The planning and design phase for the new facility will start next year, and officials hope to begin construction in 2009.

Three sets of human remains were located at the site after a preliminary cultural survey earlier this year, but officials say they do not believe the discovery will stall the project. Cultural Surveys Hawai'i, which did the work, told the O'ahu Island Burial Council in April that the remains, two of which were buried in coffins, were believed to be over 50 years old.

The proposed 295,000-square-foot Alapa'i building will have four levels of parking and six office floors. It will be built to withstand a plethora of natural disasters, and will also feature the latest security systems.

The traffic control center, which will morph into a disaster coordination hub during emergencies, will be an open two-story room on the top levels. It will be fitted with up to 80 consoles facing a bank of live-feed traffic video screens. The screens will get images from an estimated 330 city traffic cameras, plus additional state and federal cameras.

It is not yet clear whether the facility will house dispatchers for all emergency departments, or only some of them. But the city said the facility will have the capability to get in touch directly with people on the ground. Currently, dispatchers for the fire, police and EMS departments are scattered across Honolulu: fire dispatchers are in the Fasi Building, EMS dispatchers are at Honolulu Airport and police are at their main station.

The emergency operations center is planned for the top level and will have access to state-of-the-art software. Public agencies, utilities and others will be called into the center, depending on the size of the disaster, to coordinate efforts.

From there, they could remotely survey disaster scenes, monitor any traffic backups, quickly determine how many people are in danger (with mapping software) if the disaster involves air-borne pollutants, flooding or other events, and make decisions on evacuations and shelters.

That information would be quickly relayed to responders.

"What we're trying to do is not only have the ability to communicate, but certainly operate more effectively," said Mel Kaku, executive director of the Department of Transportation Services, which is overseeing the project. "In an emergency, it will be the hub of all our activity."

MODELED AFTER OTHERS

Officials say the Alapa'i facility is modeled after similar emergency operating centers in Dallas, Los Angeles and other large cities.

Raymond Rivas, emergency management specialist at the Dallas operating center, said more and more cities are finding it vital to get key agency officials in the same room during disasters. The Dallas center dates to the 1970s, though it recently underwent a major renovation.

"The job of the EOC (emergency operating center) is to assist the field responders to make sure they have resources and staffing to take care of a disaster," Rivas said.

"The job of the EOC is also to look at the global aspects of the disaster" which means considering everything from how a crisis will disrupt commutes to how it will affect the short- and long-term economy.

The Dallas center kicked into crisis mode just last month when a fire at a manufacturing plant spurred a chain reaction of exploding acetylene gas tanks. The explosions injured three, rocked buildings blocks away and forced a nearly 11-hour closure of two major interstate highways.

Rivas said officials at the EOC worked fast to determine the scope of the crisis, looking at the impact of closing those thoroughfares on commutes, analyzing mapping data to determine how many people would need to be evacuated and getting equipment to responders on the ground. There was even consideration of how the highway closures would affect businesses.

Rivas said the center is designed to anticipate what first responders will need next and how the crisis will play out over the course of hours or even days.

"It brings all the major players face to face, and that can really be a lifesaver," he said. "When you're talking about a complex disaster, it's that collaboration of all the people in the EOC that really makes it important."

The majority of the funding for the Honolulu project will come from the city. Officials are also counting on about $35 million in federal funds.

The project coincides with a plan to increase the inventory of traffic cameras surveying O'ahu roadways. There about 154 traffic cameras on O'ahu, and officials want to put up an additional 200 over the next few years.

The new facility will be built at the site of the Alapa'i city bus terminal. In addition to the emergency operations building, the city wants to build a $5.5 million transit center on the parcel.

The site will be the terminus for all express city buses and will have five bus shelters for passengers, a bus staging area and public bathrooms.

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.