In a suburban county of nearly 1 million residents on the edge of the nation's capital, life-and-death decisions of emergency response have taken place for almost two decades in a small, low-ceilinged basement room equipped with folding metal tables and chairs, a few dozen antiquated telephones and two malfunctioning dry-erase boards.
The air conditioning died when Montgomery County's emergency operations center was most recently used, during Hurricane Isabel in September. Software that was supposed to transfer markings on the dry-erase boards to computers failed. Tempers flared among officials, who were packed into a space about the size of a large mobile home.
Originally part of a fallout shelter built beneath the County Council office building in Rockville in the 1960s, the county's nerve center for responding to disasters was already archaic in 1994, when officials began drawing up plans for a new operations center.
Ten years later, a new $8.9 million command center is up and running -- to the relief of county emergency management officials, who say the new facility, which became fully operational late last month, is more important than they could have been imagined when planning for the 4,000-square-foot center began.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way governments approach emergency management. Across the country, a flood of federal money has accelerated efforts to prepare for catastrophe.
Montgomery's new emergency operations center, tucked into a nondescript Gaithersburg office park, was designed and largely built before this rush, but officials said it in many ways embodies the emerging thinking about how to deal with a large-scale emergency.
It will allow officials to instantly get data on a potpourri of subjects -- traffic, weather, hospital patient loads, 911 calls -- and share that information quickly with commanders and others at the scene of the emergency. "If an incident were to happen here like the World Trade Center, one of the challenges was [the incident commanders] weren't getting the macro view," said Montgomery County Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi.
"The rest of the world knew more than the incident commander standing in the lobby" of the World Trade Center, said Pete Piringer, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesman.
The new emergency operations center "can keep the incident commander informed about what's happening in the immediate area," Aoyagi said.
The center is arranged something like a theater, with four large flat-screen monitors taking up much of one wall. Each screen can show a variety of things, ranging from live television feeds to Internet sites to images from one of the 145 county-operated traffic cameras.
Thirty-six computer terminals in four rows of tables radiate out from the television screens. Floor jacks throughout the center allow for as many as 100 laptop computers to hook into the center's computer system, said Jim Resnick, program manager for the county's Office of Emergency Management.
At the back of the room, there is a glassed-in cubicle for reporters and photographers to document the action during an emergency.
From each terminal, officials can tap into the county's traffic management system, which is based directly above the center. Workers at the terminals can view real-time images of intersections around the county. The computer terminals can also show a real-time queue of emergency calls coming into the 911 call center, which is also in the building.
Messages can move back and forth between the traffic center, the 911 call center and the operations center on an instant messaging system. The 911 center and the traffic management center, which opened last year, are staffed and operate 24 hours a day.
All five hospitals in the county are linked to the center so that emergency officials can track important developments in emergency rooms. If there is a spike in flu cases, that information would be transmitted quickly to the commanders. If there were a rash of symptoms suggesting a biological terrorist attack, that also would be quickly known in the operations center.
All of this, of course, is theoretical. The emergency operations center is only "activated," in the parlance of county officials, when a likely catastrophe is imminent (such as hurricanes and other storms that can be forecast) or after it has struck (such as the sniper attacks in 2002). At other times, it is essentially vacant, except during practice sessions.
The 145 traffic cameras in the traffic management center run 24 hours a day. They monitor a range of public spaces in the county. A single camera atop the Executive Office Building in Rockville, for example, can survey an area of many square miles. Using a joystick in the traffic management center, an operator can swivel the camera 360 degrees and focus in on any area. It is possible to almost read license plates on cars parked at the Rockville Metro station, about a quarter-mile away.
Such cameras have become commonplace in Washington and elsewhere since Sept. 11 and have raised concerns among civil liberties groups and others about police surveillance.
Aoyagi said the county's traffic cameras are expressly forbidden to be used in police investigations.
"We don't want to be a Big Brother," Aoyagi said while giving a tour of the emergency operations center. "This was never intended to be a law enforcement surveillance camera, and we don't save any of the video."
Once activated, the center is designed to be home to a host of county agencies, ranging from the health department to the police department. The new facility has a bunk room, kitchen and showers so that officials can stay overnight. Electricity is backed up by several diesel-powered generators.
The difference between the new center and the old one in Rockville "is night and day," said County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who chairs the council's homeland security committee. In the old center, "we were running the system on computers that were 12 years old."
The new center and a recent round of purchases for public safety technology -- including new radios for police officers and firefighters and computer-aided call-taking in the 911 call center -- cost $150 million. It is the largest single capital outlay the county has ever made, officials said.
The operations center alone cost $8.9 million, according to documents from the county Office of Management and Budget. Of that amount, $4.6 million came from federal grants. The county will also pay $1.9 million to install computers and other technology in the old Rockville center, which will be used as a backup in the event the new facility cannot be used, officials said.
"It's an enormous investment, but one that there was really no disagreement about on the council," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who chairs the council's public safety committee. "The combination of all this new technology represents a quantum leap forward in our county's ability to provide public safety to our residents."