HELENA — As local authorities around Montana respond to the new coronavirus outbreak, a state team is working to help them deal with their needs.
Leaders have activated the State Emergency Coordination Center, located just outside Helena in the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services office at Fort Harrison. Inside the center, staff members from a variety of state agencies are hard at work, connecting with local agencies and with federal authorities.
“We’re coordinating information, resources, requests for technical assistance, trying to answer questions at the state level – and we also want to know what the locals are doing, too,” said Jake Ganieany, the center’s manager.
Around the center, monitors show updated information on which counties have opened emergency operations centers, where restaurants and bars have been closed and which public events have been canceled.
Since Saturday, about 45 people have been working in the center, on 12-hour shifts. That is about twice the number of personnel normally on hand.
Ganieany said they are in contact with county authorities dozens of times per day. They are working with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to ensure that counties receive the personal protective equipment and other supplies they need. They are also sharing information on things like connecting affected businesses with federal assistance.
“A lot of what the locals are asking for is information,” Ganieany said.
The center also includes a “Joint Information Center,” where public information officers from various state agencies are gathering updated information to be shared online and on social media. You can follow their updates at covid19.mt.gov and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The State Emergency Coordination Center is regularly activated to deal with threats like wildfires and flooding. Montana DES administrator Delila Bruno said it was last brought online in 2014, during the response to Ebola.
“That was a lot of preparedness activities, and while there was a lot of unique concerns that came along with Ebola, this is definitely something that’s a little more widespread, touching more communities,” she said.
The center has five levels of readiness, with Level 5 the least serious and Level 1 the most. They are currently operating at Level 2, but leaders said they are ready to expand their operations as needed.
“Everyone here is problem solving,” said Ganieany. “We are here to solve problems and help the people of Montana.”
Leaders said, if the risk of spreading the virus grows in the coming weeks, they have looked at the possibility of shifting the coordination center to working remotely.