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Inside the ops center

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The scene inside the Corvallis-Benton County Emergency Operations Center on Tuesday morning was one of organized chaos.

A table in the entry area of the Corvallis Fire Department training facility, which houses the EOC, was littered with org charts, activity log forms, phone lists and blank adhesive name tags, which shared space with a couple of Sharpies, a half-empty coffee cup and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

In the spacious main room, more than a dozen people were working on laptops set up on folding tables marked Operations, Planning, Finance, Logistics and Command. Depending on which team they were assigned to, each wore a red, yellow, blue, green or black vest.

And everybody was wearing a name tag. In this mixed bunch of workers from a cross-section of city and county departments, not everybody knows each other’s name just yet, but that will change quickly — they’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.

Activated at 8:30 on Tuesday morning, the Emergency Operations Center is the control room from which Corvallis and Benton County will jointly manage their response to the coronavirus epidemic, for however long the crisis lasts.

Bryan Lee, Benton County’s emergency services manager, is taking the first 48-hour duty rotation as EOC manager. Every two days, he’ll trade off with Corvallis Fire Chief Ken McCarthy. Each will lead a 20-person team of interdepartmental specialists from both city and county, who will also rotate in and out on the same schedule.

In general, people are working eight-hour shifts, but the teams swap in and out at two-day intervals so members can continue to tend to their regular duties in the interim.

After some initial technical difficulties in setting up the information technology system, Lee said, the EOC was getting up to speed nicely.

“Other than that, we’re actually going really smooth,” he said. “We’re working through it.”

Planning for a joint command center like this has been in the works for over a year, Lee said, but there’s never been a need for it until the coronavirus pandemic hit. This is the first time the city and county have cooperated this closely together, but they have a template to work from.

The EOC closely follows the incident command structure used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. That includes a detailed chain of command and a structured but flexible planning system for laying out strategies, objectives and specific tasks, then reassessing the situation and laying out the next set of strategies, objectives and tasks.

“We create an IAP (incident action plan) for each operational period. Then we assess on-scene progress and we do it again,” said Benton County public information officer Lili’a Neville, who is trading off PIO duties for the Emergency Operations Center with her Corvallis counterpart, Patrick Rollens.

The EOC’s most important role is to support the Benton County Health Department, which will continue to be the lead agency dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in this area, Lee said, but that’s a multifaceted task.

In this initial 48-hour planning period, one of the biggest goals is just establishing solid lines of communication between the EOC and key organizations in the community, including nursing homes and other care facilities that could see coronavirus cases, health care providers such as Samaritan Health Services and the Corvallis Clinic, and large institutions such as Oregon State University and the Corvallis School District.

Another is trying to ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment — think surgical masks, gloves and gowns — for local health care providers.

Under emergency declarations recently issued by both the city and county, the EOC theoretically could take charge of local supplies and dictate who gets what, but Lee said he sees no need for that approach, noting that state officials are working to obtain a supply of personal protective equipment from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile.

“I don’t see anything like that happening,” he said. “Rather than trying to commandeer anything (from health care providers), I’d say our role is trying to make sure their needs are met.”

Neville said staffing at the center is flexible and can be increased or decreased as needed. But if a significant number of additional personnel is required, the center may have to move to larger quarters just so people can maintain a safe distance from one another and limit the chance of transmitting the virus.

“We only have a limited number of people who can respond to this, so I think keeping our folks healthy is key,” she said.

In part for that reason, a related city-county effort called the Joint Information Center has been set up across town in a conference room at the Sunset Building, which houses a number of Benton County departments.

The JIC, which has been up and running for more than a month, is tasked with putting out clear, accurate and timely information to the public about COVID-19, the infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and what people can do to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

Part of the job involves rumor control, including monitoring social media to see what people are worrying about and correcting any false information that may be circulating. (One recent example: The myth that pregnant women can’t use hand sanitizer.)

The JIC staff will then put out accurate information through official city and county websites, social media and other channels to correct those misconceptions.

“We’ll also give that to our liaison officers (at the Emergency Operations Center) so they can communicate it to our partners,” Neville added.

Other tasks include getting basic information about COVID-19 symptoms, the risk posed by the disease and the best strategies for combating it to vulnerable populations who may not have gotten the word yet, such as people experiencing homelessness.

“Most of the folks in the homeless camps didn’t know the virus exists and didn’t know how to stop it,” Neville said.

The JIC’s response was to put that information onto handbills for distribution at homeless camps and facilities that provide services to the homeless. A similar approach is now being taken to get the word out to non-English speakers, with materials currently being translated into Spanish.

“We are working around the clock to ensure that we have accurate information we can distribute in a timely manner,” Neville said. “That sounds easy, but it really isn’t.”

That’s a big part of the Emergency Operations Center’s mission as well, Lee said.

“Mainly what we’re trying to do is give people the right information so they can stay calm and let them know that we are here working on this,” he said.

“It’s really about a community message to folks to take care of themselves and take care of each other.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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