Henry County's new emergency center opens in Kewanee, prepares for the worst

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic

Henry County's Office of Emergency Management is one of those entities that you hope never to need, but grateful they are there if you ever should.  

Mat Schnepple, the OEM director, a big man with a broad smile and a ready laugh, has a plan for every emergency, and the staff and equipment to back it up. 

Got a pandemic? Boom, call on your partners at the Health Department and start vaccination clinics in the parking lot of the local Community College. Need Personal Protective Equipment? Let the OEM be in charge of bulk buying and distribution, eliminating the inclination to hoard. "You want 1000 masks? I can get you 300 today, and there will be more tomorrow if you still need them," was the response that agencies got, insuring that every ambulance service, firehouse, hospital and clinic had what they needed to care for their community, a one-stop shop with no duplication of efforts. 

More: What was the OEM's opinion after the first year of pandemic?

The purpose of the OEM is to have a centralized control center in the event of a disaster. Members of the agency break down the occurrence, analyze the phases of action needed, creating a relevant plan of action. They coordinate lines of effort in order to avoid duplication of labors, maintain a centralized point for information dissemination, creating a managed workforce of of professionals and volunteers.

With its roots in Civil Defense from the 1950s, the OEM has come great strides since.  In the 1970's, the agency became know as Emergency Services Disaster Association, (ESDA), and transformed once again in the early 2000's to Emergency Management Association (EMA). The current name designates a higher level of preparedness than its predecessors. OEM will partner with IDOT, FEMA, IEMA and Hazardous Materials teams, with the training and equipment for almost any incident that crops up. 

Mat Schnepple, director of the Henry-Stark OEM, was recently the recipient of the  Emergency Management Agency of the Year Award, given by the Illinois Emergency Services Management Association.

An agreement was made with Stark County in 2018, allowing the Henry County OEM to provide emergency preparedness service for Stark County as well. This move was groundbreaking, as it was the first time in Illinois one agency represented two counties.

The agency's humble beginnings were housed in the basement of the jail in Cambridge.  Equipment was housed all over the county, in township buildings, firehouses, anyplace that there was space. OEM Director Schnepple and Sheriff Loncka's agencies were the beneficiaries of the referendum approving a public safety tax. An agreement was reached in 2018 between them that the Sheriff's needs in staffing, jail and sheriff's department requirements would be the first expenses handled by that tax money, and OEM would ask for their share when they were ready. 

More:Another area company awarded best in their industry

With the pandemic, and the major role the OEM played in vaccination clinics, plans for the county and various communities to adhere to COVID mitigations, and do the best at returning to normal, the OEM was very busy in 2020.

During an assessment of operations for the first year of the pandemic, it was evident that a larger, more central location was going to be needed. The sheriff's basement wasn't going to work much longer. Shortly after that, $9.4 million became available to the county from federal COVID relief funds. The procurement and design of a home for the OEM fit the parameters laid out for use of the funds.  

Schnepple went to the County Board and requested $750,000 of the funds, with his eye on a building on the south end of Kewanee, which previously had been an office building and a bank, most recently housing the Henry County Health Department. Assuring the Board that he could work totally within those numbers, Schnepple went to work. 

The Henry-Stark Health Department, seeing the value in such an arrangement, donated the building that had been their clinic, just at the edge of Kewaneee on Route 78.

Stark County also provided financial assistance for the project from ARPA funding for their county as well. 

The OEM acted as i own project manager, saving architectural fees. Elements of the building lent themselves perfectly to the new purpose, they made the most of "our time and the taxpayer's dime," as Schnepple referred to the project. 

The finished project houses a number of classrooms of various sizes, to be used in training staff and first responders on the first floor, along with the offices for the Henry County OEM. Further into the complex, are numerous rooms for the purpose of working out logistics in the event of a catastrophe. High speed internet is everywhere in the building, with three phase redundancy.

One room monitors a variety of potential threats. NOAA radar and a variety of weather maps are on monitors on the wall, another monitor tracks activity at potential hazmat sites and nuclear power plants across northern Illinois. Traffic cams watch activity on the interstates crossing Henry County. Department of Health activity is on another screen.  A row of desks in the center of the room are laptop ready, with any information needed to address a disaster in sight. Private rooms ring the "War Room".

An empty command center room, with monitors for all kinds of potential threats is at the ready for any kind of disaster that could occur.

An interesting addition of several "dorm rooms" for disaster victims with no place to go on what may be the worst day of their life. "Suppose a tornado leaves a household homeless, no room in local hotels, and family can't be there for a day or two to help them. We have facilities to help house them," explained Schnepple. Quarters are spartan, but comfortable. A common room allows family time. A remnant of the building's days as a medical clinic, repurposed to comfort victims. 

Supply boxes of personal care items for children, donated by the Regional Office of Education, stacked and at the ready, in the event a family needs to shelter after a disaster.

The basement houses more storage, and more classrooms. A working kitchen for staff who spend long days and nights. A staff room with recliners for a quick nap on a long day, or a place to read to the kids before the family heads home after a quick visit before bed.

Much of Schnepple's equipment is on site, loaded and ready to go in the event of a disaster. When moments count, the OEM is prepared. Last winter, during a raging snowstorm, a community leader called Schnepple to say that power was out, and a generator was needed to keep the community's water tower functioning. The mayor stated that every rental agency told him it would be days before they could accommodate, but the OEM went to work and had a generator delivered within an hour. 

The Kewanee location also houses the new regional training center. It is termed "regional" as it serves all Emergency services and First Responders in Henry & Stark as well as regional Hazmat, technical rescue and incident management teams that cover all of  Henry, Stark, Mercer and portions of Bureau and Rock Island Counties. 

Mat Schnepple was recently awarded the Emergency Management Agency of the Year Award, recognition given by his peers in the field.