Elgin takes 'huge step forward' in disaster preparedness with purchase of mobile emergency operations unit
In a nod to Ben Franklin's saying about fire awareness that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Elgin officials are hoping $826,599 of prevention is going to make the city more prepared for any disaster it might face.
That preparedness is coming in the form of a 42-foot long mobile emergency operations unit, the purchase of which was unanimously approved by the Elgin City Council.
The command center vehicle will be outfitted with the latest technology to help react to disasters and major incidents.
"This vehicle is being designed to be as versatile as possible," Elgin Fire Department Chief Robb Cagann said, adding that it could be used for large-scale disasters like tornadoes as well as emergencies like fires, larger police matters and public works issues like water main breaks.
Cagann applauded city leaders for spending money on something they all hope won't be needed much.
"The willingness to put these dollars into something like this is a huge step forward for the city in terms of disaster preparedness," he said. "The more we do on the front end of an incident, the less we have to spend on the back end."
The proposition was an easier sell to the council since federal money is already available to make the purchase. Elgin began participating in the Ground Emergency Medical Transportation program in late 2020 and now receives revenue for providing medical transportation services to Medicaid patients. GEMT revenue through July 2021 is $1.8 million and is expected to exceed $3 million by year's end.
Though it's never been used as such, the city's current emergency operations center (EOC) is a room in the basement of City Hall that has no cellular service, no emergency services radio capabilities and no way to stream video or to videoconference in an emergency situation. The limited communications abilities, added to the fact that City Hall might not be a prime location in the event of civil unrest, left officials looking for a better option.
City staff determined a mobile EOC would be more versatile and ultimately more cost effective, enabling them to coordinate multiple departments from any location as they respond to an emergency.
It could also be deployed in advance for city events like Nightmare on Chicago Street and the annual Fourth of July fireworks display -- situations in which a mobile EOC can be used as a coordination center should something happen, such as when a drowning occurred during the 2018 fireworks display in the Fox River near Festival Park.
The unit could also be sent to neighboring communities experiencing disasters. Cagann, who is also Elgin's emergency services director, said he's unaware of a comparable vehicle in any other community in the region. Kane County has a mobile command unit but it isn't outfitted with the advanced technology their new unit will have.
"This creates an opportunity for us to take a leadership role in this region," Mayor David Kaptain said.
Kaptain recounted bringing a group to Elgin from Joplin, Missouri, to talk about challenges they faced after their devastating 2011 tornado.
"You don't realize what a town looks like when you can't see the streets signs anymore and there are no landmarks," he said. "Their communications failed."
The mobile EOC will be housed at Fire Station 2 on Big Timber Road.
A group of city officials from various departments started working on the plan a few years ago, Cagann said. After a COVID timeout, they revived the work this spring and "spec'd out" a vehicle at LDV Custom Specialty Vehicles in Wisconsin early this summer. The vehicle should last about 30 years, Cagann said.