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Federal funding will help pay for Emergency Operations Center at WIU

Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Rendering
Western Illinois University
courtesy photo
Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Rendering

A former science library at Western Illinois University will serve a new purpose. It will be renovated into a facility that supporters say will benefit students and the entire region.

An Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is used as a centralized command facility by emergency agencies, police, and other authorities as they respond to immediate crises such as tornadoes and floods and during long-term emergencies such as a pandemic.

McDonough County’s current EOC is temporarily housed in Tanner Hall on the WIU campus in Macomb. But that building’s towering windows could make it a less than ideal place to be during extreme weather with high winds.

And Edgar Rodriguez, Director of the county’s Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, said the region is no stranger to extreme weather.

“We see more natural disasters, more man-made disasters in rural communities but we don’t have the capacity to respond in a precise way like Chicago would do or major cities would do. This project is bringing those assets to us,” Rodriguez said.

He is excited about the prospect of working out of an up-to-date, permanent EOC.

The center will be located in the circular former physical sciences library in Currens Hall. The WIU administration closed the library in May 2018 due to a decrease in traffic because of online scholarship and research opportunities.

The former library meets requirements such as having adequate parking, having a nearby place for people to stay, having a nearby site to land a helicopter, and not being located in a flood or earthquake zone.

Rodriguez came to Macomb from Fairfax, Virginia, where he became accustomed to top-notch equipment. So he is looking forward to the new facility, which he said will be competitive with any other EOC in the nation.

“Having that capacity in a rural area is great. And the fact that we’re going to train the next generation of emergency managers, that’s even greater,” he said.

That last point is one of the keys to the project.

“The thing that I love about this project is that it’s going to be an educational EOC. So when we are not using it for emergency purposes, we can train the future emergency managers because - as much as I would like - I’m not going to be eternal. I would like to pass my knowledge to the next generations,” Rodriguez said.

The next generation includes Western Illinois University students studying emergency management.

Jamie Johnson, Professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA) at WIU, said students will have hands-on emergency management experience before they graduate and hit the job market.

“Our students are going to get day-to-day access to the real equipment,” Johnson said.

He said that having an on-campus EOC is something they’ve dreamed about in the department. “It’s an exciting time for emergency management on this campus,” Johnson said.

Jill Joline Myers, Director of the School of LEJA, added the center will used to train more than students -- they will also train professionals.

“It’s the ability to train the professionals and get them up to date in a region in which we are very much underserved,” Myers said.

In addition, the center will meet standards set by the Department of Defense, so it could be used by federal and state emergency agencies too if the need arises.

Myers said half of the funding for the estimated $3.5 to $4 million project was awarded to LEJA through the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act.

“Hopefully the $2 million will allow us to actually move and start the operations over there. It would be a more work-friendly environment and we would also add things that are permanent as opposed to right now we’re shifting things around as need be,” she said.

Myers said she’s writing grant applications and seeking other sources of revenue to cover the rest of the cost. She said the project still needs to be designed and put out to bid so it might be 12 to 18 months before construction begins.

Rodriguez said the Macomb police department’s training room served as the county’s previous EOC, which means it was not always set up and ready to go.

He said the center had been moved to its temporary Tanner Hall location by the time of the September 2020 on-campus shooting at Western. “We saw locally the advantage of having an EOC ready in a heartbeat. That’s one of the things that pushed us to make this happen sooner than later,” said Rodriguez.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.