Border emergency center gets pre-Olympics test run
New Washington state center will handle anti-terrorism and security during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver
The Associated Press
When the 2010 Winter Olympics open in Vancouver, B.C., next February, representatives of state, local and federal law enforcement and emergency response agencies will gather 45 miles south, at a new $4 million communications center at Bellingham International Airport.
Whether they'll have much to do there remains an open question. The Department of Homeland Security has called the facility a key site for counterterrorism and security operations leading up to the games, and officials say a key goal is to make sure travelers move through the border safely and quickly.
But in the past three years, estimates of how much traffic the Winter Games will generate in Washington state have dropped dramatically, from early guesses of 2,000 cars a day, roughly the equivalent of a busy summer day, to as few as 400, according to studies by the Whatcom Council of Governments.
"Even when we thought we were looking at an additional 2,000 cars a day, the Olympics traffic volume didn't seem like something that would overwhelm the resources in place," said Hugh Conroy, a project manager with the council who has studied the traffic implications of the games. "It's basically gone from being like a busy summer day to a busy winter day."
Conroy notes that those estimates could increase if more tickets are sold in the northwestern United States, and they don't reflect ticket sales from third-party vendors or travelers who might head north without tickets just to hang out near all the excitement. The estimates were revised downward after ticket sales information became available this year, showing that fewer tickets than expected would be sold in the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arrives on Monday to tour the Olympic Coordination Center, which this week begins a pre-Olympics trial run tied to the World Police and Fire Games, an event expected to draw 12,000 athletes to Vancouver from July 31-Aug. 9.
Napolitano also plans to visit the ongoing expansion of the Peace Arch border crossing at Blaine and the Coast Guard's interagency command center in Seattle.
About 25 to 30 agencies will have representatives at the center during the Police and Fire Games, and training will include information sharing and planning for possible riots or terrorism, as well as floods or snowstorms that might shut down Interstate 5 during the Olympics.
"Anything that would impact the highways to and from the border — that's what we deem as probably the most realistic of what's going to happen," said Amanda Bibler, assistant director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Seattle.
After the Police and Fire Games, the center will shut down until the Olympics, when it is expected to operate at closer to its capacity, with seating for 54 representatives of up to 40 state, federal, local, tribal and Canadian agencies, said Washington State Patrol Capt. Greg Miller, lead planner for the center.
The center would not direct any emergency responses into Canada unless the Canadian government first asked the Obama administration, he said.
"It's an international event right across the border, and our Canadian partners are preparing security relating to that," Miller said. "We know there's going to be a greater number of people traveling through Washington state to the games. Our job is to make sure they're safe on their way up there. We don't know what could happen — winter storms, large collisions, hazardous spills."
The Department of Homeland Security has leased the space for two years, and could lease it for at least another two beyond that. Customs and Border Protection might move its air-and-marine branch into the building, and Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen, a longtime supporter of the facility, said it will continue to be used for years if not decades.
Alex Glass, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who secured federal funding for the center, called it "incredibly important."
"We've seen what happens when there isn't any coordination, from floods during Hurricane Katrina to terrorist attacks around the globe," she said. "You have to be ready at a moment's notice and you have to work seamlessly."
Whether of not the Olympics bring any surprises to Washington state, officials say it will improve interagency cooperation.
"You never want to meet somebody for the first time in a foxhole," State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said. "Whatever happens with the bricks and the mortar at the coordination center, the relationships we've developed will go on."
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