BELLINGHAM - Years after it was first envisioned, the city, Whatcom County and Port of Bellingham will host an open house to celebrate the recent opening of the Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center, which brings local emergency management resources together under one roof.
The open house will take place at 10 a.m., Friday, July 18. Public officials will speak and tours and refreshments will be offered at the center, 3888 Sound Way, near Bellingham International Airport.
"Most places have emergency management siloed by city, county and state," said Kent Catlin, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office Division of Emergency Management. "Not Whatcom."
The partnership between Whatcom and Bellingham is not new - Bellingham used to contract with the county government for emergency management services, like smaller cities still do. In 2007, the city created its own emergency management office that worked alongside, but not with, the county's division. Bellingham created its own division in part to better prepare for disasters such as the 1999 pipeline explosion.
In June 2009 the two offices joined together under the same roof as partners, because governments were cutting costs after the recession and because the agencies had worked together well when flooding in January 2009 inundated much of the county, the then-director of the county's emergency management office told The Bellingham Herald at the time.
The center was originally constructed by the Department of Homeland Security as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Coordination Center, with the intention that it would be turned over to local government afterward as a place for multiple agencies to coordinate their response to everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. After the federal government pulled out of the building, local agencies were not able to come up with the money needed to lease the facility, so it sat empty for years.
Then, earlier this year, the port, county and city agreed to lease the building, with Bellingham and Whatcom sharing operating expenses, after donations from private businesses helped furnish and equip the facility.
As potential "responsible parties" that likely would benefit from having a readily available command center in the event of a disaster, Phillips 66 Ferndale and BP Cherry Point refineries contributed to the project. Phillips 66 gave a $50,000 grant to the Whatcom Community Foundation, and BP repurposed and donated more than $300,000 in computers and technology, furniture and office equipment from other stations the company has operated, including a response center used during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Catlin said.
The building is large enough to host the 150 to 250 or more people needed to respond to an event, Catlin said. The space also will house a 911 dispatch center in the future.
The center has breakout rooms for politicians, officials and media. The space also has two large "flex" rooms that can be used to store materials and response vehicles for catastrophic events, or for needs like setting up food stations to feed responders who may be in and out of the center for days at a time during a big event.
While not being used for emergency response, the building is available for first responder trainings and meetings at no cost to agencies.