Olympic center goes far beyond games

Published on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 by Bill Elfo Whatcom County Sheriff

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The Olympic coordination center, located near Bellingham International Airport, was established by the United States Department of Homeland Security in late 2009. 

While designed to address U.S. security issues related to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, it is a state of the art facility where local, state, federal and international agencies can plan and coordinate responses to a myriad of natural and manmade disasters.

Our nation has all too often witnessed intolerable delays in the delivery of emergency services during times of disaster that have resulted in the loss of life and prolonging of misery. 

These delays have primarily been attributed to the lack of coordination between responders in various agencies and levels of government. 

The process of planning the Olympic coordination center and associated training and exercises have resulted in the establishment of relationships, systems and plans that will ensure coordination occurs within hours of a critical event.

A recent news headline characterized the coordination center as a “cop shop.” While it is critical that representatives of law enforcement are part of the incident management structure supporting the center, it is not law enforcement centric.  

Operating under the National Incident Management system, decision-makers and resource-providers from the fire service, public health, transportation and other critical officials play key roles in ensuring proper planning, response and resource allocation during times of serious emergency.

Given Whatcom County’s location on the international border, the presence of critical infrastructure and potential terrorist targets as well as its vulnerability to a myriad of natural disasters and public health emergencies, it is important that response and emergency management agencies at all levels of government maintain the ability to coordinate preparations and responses to major events that endanger our community.

Whatcom County’s emergency operations center was formerly located in the basement of the courthouse and proved on many occasions to be an inadequate facility for addressing large-scale emergencies.  

While some improvements were achieved by a move to a county fire station, this facility too proved to be inadequately equipped and sized during the 2008 flood.

The city of Bellingham and Sheriff’s office emergency management offices are now housed at the coordination center. 

The emergency operations room within the center, is staffed only during times of need.

When need arises, staff from needed agencies can quickly assemble to provide the necessary organizational structure to ensure a coordinated and effective response.  The center is currently the only emergency operations center of this size north of Seattle. 

While local government does not “pay rent,” it provides a quid pro quo to the federal government in its ability to quickly open the center and facilitate responses to large-scale emergencies. 

Operating under “one roof” not only reduces facility needs for all agencies, but ensures operational efforts are directed in the most effective and efficient manner.

Our local congressional delegation was instrumental in working with Department of Homeland Security, state emergency management and local emergency management offices to transform the vision for the center into a reality. 

The center serves as a model of cooperation for the rest of the country and should remain in our community long after the Olympic events have concluded.