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The War Room : Staff in Bunker Would Maintain Telephone Service in Event of Quake

Times Staff Writer

The bunker has four rooms. It is well underground, with linoleum floors and thick concrete walls painted in eternal-bureaucracy tan.

Sockets painted red identify the emergency electrical power outlets. There is a narrow stairway to street level, passing through a crude shower stall for washing radioactive fallout from anyone coming from the outside.

The center of the complex, called “the war room,” has a T-shaped conference table and maps on the walls.

“It kind of looks like Eisenhower should be sitting there, running the show, doesn’t it?” the telephone company guide asks.

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Yes, it does.

The war room, as Pacific Bell employees nicknamed the bunker in the basement of a Ventura Boulevard building in Sherman Oaks, comes by its appearance honestly. It was originally designed to serve as a command post in a nuclear war, not for the military but for AT&T;, to restore and maintain essential communications.

Built in 1969, in the twilight of the bomb-shelter era, it suffered years of neglect as civil-defense consciousness waned, but is now being refurbished for use after the powerful earthquake in the Los Angeles area that scientists predict will strike someday.

The building still is shared by AT&T; and its former subsidiary, Pacific Bell, which was spun off in the federally ordered breakup of the communications giant in 1984. Except for the four rooms in the basement--officially the Emergency Operations Center--the remainder of the building contains everyday telephone company equipment and offices.

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War-Room Duty

Within four to 12 hours of the expected major quake, a group of 19 top Pacific Bell executives are supposed to take their seats in the war room, said Blanca Orozco, supervisor of the emergency center. The company’s goal is to provide emergency service within 24 hours, although restoring normal service in homes “could be a matter of weeks,” she said.

“There’s been a revitalized interest in earthquake-preparedness because of the quakes in Mexico City and Coalinga, and then all the quakes lately, in Palm Springs and those other places,” she said.

The emergency center still has some equipment from its days as a bomb shelter, including 300 fallout suits--paper coveralls that those in the center could wear after a nuclear explosion and dispose of frequently, Orozco said.

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The food stocks “we gave to the Salvation Army three or four years ago,” but the company is now shopping for new supplies, she said. The bunker area includes a simple kitchen, a three-burner electric stove and small sink. The building has its own 20,000-gallon water supply and rows of diesel-powered generators.

The command center is underneath an eight-story building, a windowless monolith of concrete that looks just like what it was designed to be--a nuclear war fort. Now, it looms incongruously over the frozen-yogurt shops and videotape stores of Ventura Boulevard.

The building’s appearance is not unusual for a major telephone-switching exchange--they are commonly housed in buildings with beefed up security to guard against terrorists or other interference, Orozco said.

Unusual Structure

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But the building is not the usual telephone-exchange structure, according to Jack Parrish, an architect with the firm--now called Ziegler, Kirven and Parrish--that designed it.

“It has massively thick walls, 12 to 15 inches of steel-reinforced concrete. The whole building was a fallout shelter,” he said.

“All the openings in the walls were shielded with 1/8-inch lead baffles to keep radioactive particles out. There were lead baffles in the air conditioning system. The whole building was pressurized to keep contaminants out.

“In fact, it was sealed so tight that we had a hard time closing doors against the air pressure inside. We had to go to special heavy duty door-closers.”

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The basement and first four floors of the building were designed in 1967 and completed in 1969, he said. The top four floors were added in 1973.

The integrity of the fallout-sealing system was lost when openings were made in the walls for additional air conditioners in the mid-1970s, Orozco said.

The Sherman Oaks center was used in the earthquake-preparedness rehearsal organized by the state last year and will be used again in a Pacific Bell exercise next month.

The center still has its old supply of about 25 Army-style cots and bedding for the managers and vice presidents who would run the war room for days, or maybe weeks.

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The dozens of sleeping bags in the stockpile are “for middle management,” Orozco said.


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