A new emergency operations center to oversee Cayman’s response to hurricanes will open in late summer, capping a two-year delay for the facility.
The center will be responsible for coordinating government’s response to disasters, such as hurricanes, air crashes, tsunamis, pandemics and port accidents, as well as making long-standing preparations for earthquakes, security, environmental hazards and flooding.
Tenders for building and outfitting the National Emergency Operations Centre, which will be on the second floor of the Government Administration Building, were sought in April this year, with May 4 as the deadline for responses.
According to tender documents, the facility will comprise a 425-square-foot communications center adjoining a 925-square-foot operation room. Furniture and equipment costs for the facility are expected to reach $125,000.
McCleary Frederick, director of Hazard Management Cayman Islands, said budget constraints had delayed completion of the center. “Funding was not available,” he told the Cayman Compass, pegging “best estimate” for opening in “August, September.”
Mr. Frederick said government made the original decision to move the National Emergency Operations Centre in 2005 after Hurricane Ivan revealed shortcomings in the Central Fire Station headquarters, where the emergency facility is currently based.
The emergency center at the fire station, which measures approximately 600 square feet, has to accommodate up to 40 people.
“When the NEOC is activated, the operations center and almost all of the fire department administration offices [are] used for the response,” Mr. Frederick said. “This means that the fire department administration and operational staff is unable to function.”
In short, he said, “[the] department did not provide adequate working space for the system that is currently employed for national emergency and disaster response.”
In the wake of these limitations being highlighted, “the decision was taken to build a purpose-built NEOC that would accommodate HMCI [Hazard Management Cayman Islands] Office, the National Weather Service, OFTEL [Office of Telecommunications], 911 and the NEOC,” he said.
Planners also considered expanding the fire station.
Costs – and shrinking budgets – were paramount in the project, while rebuilding the fire station was determined not to be a practical alternative because of its location, “considering that the building flooded during Ivan. Expansion of the fire department would also involve costly construction,” Mr. Frederick said.
Officials turned to the Government Administration Building about two years ago, he said, because “it is a better alternative to the fire department and does not require new construction.”
The communications center will have five workstations for call-takers and a supervisor. Each station will have four monitors, two computers, a telephone and radio.
The room will comprise 16 mobile desks for 32 officials. Each desk will have six outlets for laptop computers, four network connections, two USB power connections, a cable-management system and five three-drawer mobile cabinets.
Acknowledging the June 1 start to hurricane season, Mr. Frederick nonetheless minimized fears that the delays – and continuing limitations of the Central Fire Station – might compromise emergency operations.
“If the need arises, then we will function to the best of our ability given the circumstances,” he said.
Acting Fire Chief John Bodden, also chairman of the search and rescue subcommittee under the National Hurricane Plan, echoed Mr. Frederick: “We will still use what we have here, and if necessary, we’ll expand into the other boardroom.”
Mr. Frederick also allayed fears that between emergencies, the NEOC and its facilities would lie idle.
“It was always the intention to use the NEOC for other needs, such as meetings and training. The difference is that the main design and function would be an NEOC that would have other uses and not the other way around,” he said.
During Hurricane Ivan, the NEOC coordinated island-wide efforts at pre-storm preparation, security, evacuation, management and recovery.
Staffers lived at the fire station, sharing space with families and even Radio Cayman as it became apparent it was among the few places on-island offering security, electric power, clean water and food, although overflowing toilets created problems of their own.
The new center, however, will be protected inside the Government Administration Building, rated for category five hurricane protection.