Most of the time, the large room at the Yakima County Office of Emergency Management is used for training or meetings.
But when there’s a disaster, be it a blizzard, a flood or a pandemic, it becomes the county’s Emergency Operations Center — a command post where officials coordinate their responses.
“The county has a plan, and the EOC is a part of the plan,” said Casey Schilperoort, the Yakima County sheriff’s spokesman who also serves as a part-time public information officer at the EOC.
Seventeen people are staffing the center in Union Gap during the coronavirus outbreak, ensuring supplies get to first responders and keeping the public informed on the pandemic. The positions are double-staffed, Schilperoort said, ensuring backup in case someone is sick.
In an area where wildfires, floods and earthquakes are more likely disasters, the center is operating relatively smoothly, said Horace Ward, OEM’s senior emergency planner and EOC manager.
“Like most jurisdictions in the United States, we did not have specific plans for responding to an epidemic, especially one that is affecting every corner of the earth,” Ward said.
The EOC can be activated for a variety of reasons — when an incident involves more than one agency, has the potential to expand quickly or poses a significant threat to the public, Ward said.
When the center is activated, tables, phones and computers are set up so volunteers and staff can gather and analyze information, coordinate a response and ensure that resources are sent where they are needed.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the center is ordering personal protective equipment for first responders, health care workers and others who need it, identifying sites that could be used for emergency shelters or isolation, delivering test kits to the state each day, Ward said.
Some staff members monitor social media for questions or trends, and will issue statements to get correct information out, Schilperoort said. The center also coordinates the twice-weekly news updates from the health district on the spread of the virus in the Valley.
In some cases, the EOC can also manage emergency shelters and distribution points for food, Ward said.
The last full activation of Yakima County’s EOC was in the early days of the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide in 2018, Ward said. It operated on a more limited basis during the February 2019 blizzard and this year’s flooding.