Lab offers look inside ops center

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By Tris DeRoma

When the winds are high and the air is dry in Los Alamos County, everyone this time of year seems a bit on edge, especially when wildfires start up nearby.


With the memories of Las Conchas and Cerro Grande wildfires still freshly engrained in the memories of many residents, these days are spent looking to the horizon for the telltale plume that another wildfire is on the way.

Their memories were refreshed this week as the Thompson Ridge fire grew to close to 18,000 acres and almost consumed the Valles Caldera Historic District.

Only a week before the fire started, officials offered a tour of the Emergency Operations Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which made one tour guide’s words rather prophetic.

“Thought it was a good idea to bring you in here before we had an emergency, so that you had an idea of what we do and how we are equipped to deal with an emergency situation,” said Marla Brooks, emergency group leader at LANL.

The tour was organized so the media could get a better understanding of the EOC’s role in protecting the community, and its laboratory, from wildfire and other threats.

While the EOC was clearly the centerpiece of the tour, Brooks said when a call or an alert comes in; it’s their field operations that are usually contacted first.

The tour allowed for introductions to LANL’s emergency managers and their various teams, including the hazardous materials team and the hazardous device team.

One of the first vehicles the press got to see firsthand was LANL’s Mobile Command Units, the vehicles and trailers LANL uses to stage operations in the field.

“We have large canopies, small canopies, chairs, desks, office equipment, anything the decision makers may need to do their jobs,” LANL Emergency Manager Brenda Andersen said.

Also on hand was LANL’s Mobile Communications Unit, which works in conjunction with the Mobile Command Units.

“What we typically do, if it’s going to be a prolonged event we bring this (Mobile Communications Unit) in,” Emergency Manager Dave McClard said. “This gives us the ability to bring hazmat folks, fire, everyone together, out of the elements, develop a plan and objectives for the event.”

LANL’s emergency fleet also has a “Hazardous Response Device Truck” which carries basically everything the lab needs to defuse a bomb or unexploded ordnance that may be found in the area.

“We also cooperate very closely with the Los Alamos Police Department’s Hazardous Response Team, especially if it looks like anything that could be a criminal event,” said

Jeff Dare, LANL’s emergency response group leader.

Dare also showed off one of two of LANL’s hazardous materials response trucks, which Dare described as a “big toolbox on wheels.”

“Anything that has to do with chemicals, chem/bio or radiological events, we can respond with one of these trucks,” Dare said, adding the each trucks carries anything they may need for whatever problem they’re up against.

The tour not only included a look at the lab’s fleet of emergency vehicles and equipment, but also a large room filled with computers and monitors, which during times of emergency, is opened up and turned into a “war room” of sorts. This is where county, tribal and emergency officials can strategize face to face on whatever emergency has called them there, fire or otherwise.

“Having everyone here also allows us to send out one unified message to the media, so the public isn’t confused,” Brooks said during the tour of the room.

According to Lab Spokesman Kevin Roark, the EOC has not been activated in response to the Thompson Ridge wildfire.

“So far, the fire’s stayed away, it has not reached that trigger point yet,” Roark said.

However, they are monitoring what’s happening over there.

“We monitor any nearby fire around the clock. We have a fire manager, and I’m sure he’s working side by side with the emergency managers involved in handling the fire,” Roark said.