On a Friday afternoon at Kirkland City Hall, it feels more like a Tuesday afternoon — it’s quiet, nearly no guests and if you pause for a second, you might forget that the city is the epicenter of Washington’s coronavirus outbreak.
Although the entry level is calm, reminders of the global pandemic persist. Three staff members chat at a distance from each other, not quite six feet as recommended, but it is a noticeable distance. Retractable belt barriers (like those that help corral lines at airport security) sit one or two feet in front of receptionist desks, with signs hanging from them reminding you to practice social distancing. Many staff members are working from home or working rotating shifts to cut down on interaction. (City Hall announced it would be closing operations at noon on March 16.)
However, below the surface (literally, in the basement of the building) sits Kirkland’s Emergency Operations Center, which has been operational for 12 or 24 hours of the day since going into action at 2 a.m. on Feb. 29. The team of 20-30 staff members range from public information officers to finance specialists and the fire department’s Chief Joseph Sanford. Each team member wears a colored vest to signify which of the four teams of the operations they are on.
Their first task each day is to ensure they don’t get each other sick. When someone enters the room for the first time that day, they are first required to read over a list of COVID-19 symptoms and report if they have any, as well as disinfecting a thermometer and taking their temperature. If their temperature is above 100.4 Fahrenheit, they must report it to Heather Kelly, Kirkland’s emergency manager.
Two rooms about the size of an office are directly next to the main room, where Kirkland firefighters who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 are checked on by other firefighters over the phone twice a day while they are in quarantine. Several firefighters and some police officers have been quarantined since being potentially exposed to COVID-19 in the course of their jobs.
Kellie Stickney, communications manager for the city, said the ever-evolving pandemic can make the role of the center different from hour to hour.
“(We are) making sure that we’re getting the support we need for firefighters … getting Life Care Center the support that they needed was one of the big tasks,” Stickney said. “Now it’s just making sure that we’re educating and informing the public, making sure they know what to do and making sure everyone is prepared but not panicked.”
She said her communications team is answering questions via email, phone and social media as they come in from the public.
“Right now the most common question I’m getting is, ‘what can I do to help?’ ‘Do you need food?’ ‘Do the firefighters need food?’ ‘Can we volunteer?’” Stickney said of the public’s most common requests. The answer they give: prepare at home and follow all public health guidelines.
The purpose of the Emergency Operations Center is to put all of the teams in one room to do their work.
The four teams are: Public information, planning, operations and logistics. If firefighters need supplies, the logistics team attempts to find and purchase those supplies, and financing figures out how to pay for it. Then, a team in charge of documentation will keep track of what is spent and where, to make sure the city is reimbursed where possible in the future. The proclamations of emergency at city, county, state and national levels helps make reimbursement possible.
The emergency operations team practices about twice a year, Stickney said. She said Kirkland being the epicenter of the Washington outbreak (and the first confirmed case in the U.S.) was the No. 1 thing they did not expect in their various preparations.
The team in Kirkland has become the attraction of national attention. “CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, ABC and NBC affiliates,” have all reached out to Stickney, she said. She doesn’t mind the outlets reaching out as national attention helps with keeping the community informed.
Looking to the future, the Emergency Operations Center is trying to prepare for what their tasks may be if the pandemic overwhelms regional health-care facilities – as has happened in Italy. The hope is that proper response and preparation will avoid that, but they need to anticipate that possibility.
The team at the center was originally working 24 hours a day, but are down to around 12 a day now, according to Stickney. Baskets of snacks sit on tables at the edge of the room to help keep up morale.
“They keep us well fed. They make sure we have what we need in terms of caffeine and equipment, but everyone in here knows they’re doing something important,” Stickney said. “And that’s morale boosting in itself, to be able to know that every day the work you’re doing right now is really important.”