Clatsop County's Emergency Management Division is putting the finishing touches on a lease agreement with the Oregon Military Department to build a state-of-the art communications wing at the National Guard's Camp Rilea.

With the $1-per-year lease agreement being completed this week, the county now plans to build a 1,050-square-foot wing on the back end of Camp Rilea's Warrior Hall in Warrenton. The multiroom building will replace the county's current facility, located in the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office in Astoria.

Confident the new facility will improve the county's ability to communicate in the event of a disaster, Director of Emergency Management Dean Perez conveys this message: "Bring it on, Mother Nature."

As proposed, the communications facility will be a significant improvement over what the county uses in the sheriff's office, Perez said. Cell phone reception is so unreliable where the emergency operations center is located that when other landline means of communication are compromised - as they were during the 2007 wind storm, when gusts brought down power lines- the facility becomes all but cut off from the outside world.

The project comes with a $500,000 price tag, for which the county is on the hook for $167,000. Another $86,000 will come from the Revised State Radio Project and $250,000 will come from an Emergency Management Program Grant.

Some of that money will be used to help incorporate a number of communications devices - including cellular phones, ham radio, an Internet connection and a microwave transmission tower - into the facility's design. "It will be state of the art," Perez said, "and not just for Clatsop County, but also for Oregon."

At the very least, it will be an improvement, according to the county.

When an Earthquake struck the coast of Japan last March, resulting in a massive tsunami that swept through the country's Northeastern port cities and killed thousands of people, County Manager Duane Cole said he and other county emergency management officials followed the developing situation from the county's offices on Exchange Street in Astoria because the bunker-like confines of the sheriff's officer were inadequate.

"When the tsunami struck, we had no cell phone service at the basement of the jail," said County Manager Duane Cole. "It's real hard to communicate in and out of there. Plus, at that particular location if we have an earthquake, or a landslide situation, there could be issues ... with that building."

Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, the deputy director of the Oregon Military Department and the interim director of the state's Emergency Management Agency, said consolidating services at Camp Rilea will help in the event of an emergency.

"From a practical standpoint, I think having us co-located will be advantageous for any disaster," he said.

But despite the confidence in the project, there is recognition that it might not be suitable for all emergencies.

Warrior Hall at Camp Rilea rests on flat ground about a mile from the ocean. The communications facility could be hit hard if a powerful tsunami struck the Oregon Coast, Perez said. He added that Camp Rilea remains the only location that provides close-by access to Coast Guard cutters and National Guard helicopters, however, which factored into the county's decision.

"If 100 people come and say it's not a good place, my response is, ‘Show me a better place,'" Perez said, adding that the site is suited toward emergencies caused by high winds, fires or earthquakes.

Perez said county officials were not opposed to building the communications wing at a higher elevation, but added there are no suitable locations.

Among County Commissioners, there are no concerns about the facility's location. Commissioner Scott Lee said the facility would be about 60 feet above sea level, which he believes would supply an adequate buffer from the ocean.

Current flood maps indicate a tsunami would be "survivable" at the location, Caldwell said.

Lee said he supports the project because it would consolidate and improve county resources.

"I think it's important to have all the operations centers in one place," he said. "And one advantage to having it over there is it's right on a military base."

The county plans to hire a contractor for the project in April and break ground in May. Plans call for completing the emergency communications facility by September, which Perez calls an "ambitious timeline."

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