Pinellas County Sherriff Bob Gualtieri speaks to the county commissioners, officials and members of the media in the lobby of the new Sheriff’s Administration Building and Public Safety Complex before departing on a tour July 31. Pinellas County Commissioners John Morroni, left, and Norm Roche are in the background.
Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
Pinellas County Interim Chief of Staff Bruce Moeller, far left, explains the function and benefits of having a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center, designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, ready to go in the event of a disaster.
Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
The new Emergency Operations Center boasts 118 workstations grouped in five rows of essential services – made up of county and community representatives – needed in the event of a major disaster: Coast Guard, damage assessment, infrastructure, human services, emergency services and governmental liaisons.
Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
Each of the workstations in the Regional 911 Center feature five screens, allowing dispatchers to monitor the location of each law enforcement vehicle in the county while taking information from callers and contacting appropriate authorities. The desks themselves can be raised using hydraulics to allow the dispatchers to either stand or sit during their shifts. Supervisors can monitor the entire floor from a raised platform, pictured in the background.
LARGO – Ten years ago, Pinellas County prepared for what could have been its biggest disaster in modern history.
On Aug. 13, 2004, tracking maps showed Hurricane Charley taking aim at Tampa Bay – specifically Pinellas County. Evacuations were underway. An emergency order and curfews were in place. The county braced for the worst.
Pinellas dodged a bullet that day. Charley made landfall just after 3 p.m. further south in Lee County as a Category 4 hurricane with winds in excess of 150 mph. The hurricane traveled through central Florida leaving a huge path of destruction before exiting just south of Daytona Beach.
Florida weathered four hurricanes in 2004 – Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Hundreds died. Property damage added up to billions of dollars. Fortunately, none of those hurricanes touched Pinellas. Although, weaker systems did pass through, causing some minor damage.
As Pinellas reached out to its neighbors and emergency management workers came together in the aftermath of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, officials began to realize that changes were required to better prepare for the future.
Pinellas began updating its disaster plans. Work started on hurricane hardening of buildings, expansion of shelter space, training for staff and educating the public.
A key piece to the county’s plan was construction of new facilities designed to withstand the force of a Category 5 hurricane. One of the lessons learned in 2004 was how difficult it is to respond after a disaster when critical infrastructure fails.
A new two-story Public Works Operations facility and vehicle storage building opened Aug. 12, 2007 at 22211 Hwy. 19 N. in Clearwater. The buildings were designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. In the case of an emergency, the operations facility would serve as an emergency center and shelter for public works staff and first responders. The storage building would house necessary equipment.
But, Pinellas also needed a facility for the sheriff’s office, emergency operations and 911 dispatchers that also could withstand the force of a Category 5 storm. County commissioners approved a $68.5 million agreement to begin construction of a new administration building for the sheriff’s office and public safety complex Aug. 7, 2012.
Nearly two years later, commissioners took their first tour July 31 of the new 208,403 square-foot facility located in a non-evacuation zone at 10750 Ulmerton Road in Largo.
“This is a hardened facility,” Interim Chief of Staff Bruce Moeller told those attending the tour. “We have also two generators outside that are redundant.”
The two 2.5-megawatt generators can supply the facility for more than 96 hours. Additional fuel supplies are stored onsite to resupply the generators. Wells are available to provide water. Wastewater storage is available.
“Because, again, we have to assume that everyone outside has failed,” Moeller said. “That’s why there are satellite phones.”
The building has the capacity to hold about 700 people during activation of the Emergency Operations Center. Those people will have all they need to respond before, during and after a storm.
The first floor is equipped with a kitchen with a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, as well as storage for dry goods. There also is space for a refrigerated trailer and tie downs to ensure adequate supplies of food. In addition, there is an infirmary, which will be staffed by Sunstar paramedics during an emergency. A laundry room is available for emergency workers.
The second floor houses the Emergency Management Department. The space includes 118 desks; four “break-out rooms” for meetings with up to 12 people; two conference rooms with teleconferencing equipment; a media room with nine workstations; space with eight workstations for public information officers; a logistics section with capacity for 14 workstations; a citizens information center with a capacity of 32 people per shift; a radio room with seven workstations for auxiliary communications services; and storage for communications equipment and educational materials.
The old Emergency Operations Center at 400 S. Fort Harrison Ave. in Clearwater is currently being dismantled and repurposed.
The third floor of the facility is home to the county’s new consolidated Regional 911 Center. It serves as the public safety answering point for the entire county.
The 911 telecommunicators are expected to answer as many as a million calls during the first year, according to a fact sheet provided by county Communications. They will process calls for fire, emergency medical services and the sheriff’s office. Calls also will be transferred to police departments in Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs.
The space has room for 63 personnel, including two 911 supervisors, 27 911 telecommunicators, eight fire-EMS dispatchers, two PCSO supervisors, seven PCSO dispatchers, three switchboard teletype, two traffic control positions (for use during an emergency), two Sunstar supervisors and 10 Sunstar dispatchers.
The new 911 center became operational July 23.
“There were some bumps along the way, no doubt about it, but when push came to shove and switches were flipped that Wednesday morning, it was absolutely seamless,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Gualtieri credited the success to teamwork.
“It’s a credit to them and their hard work that we now have really, really crossed a threshold and reached a milestone in Pinellas County to give better emergency communications delivered to its citizens,” he said. “There will be a cost savings, and we’ll realize that costs savings as we move down the road, but the more important part of it is, is we’re delivering a better more efficient service to the citizens.”
The new facility also replaces the sheriff’s Administration Building, which will be demolished in the near future. A parking lot with 566 spaces will take its place.
“This new modern state-of-the-art, technology-sound building replaces what was very antiquated,” Gualtieri said.
Eight units with almost 100 employees currently spread out throughout the county also will be moving into the new facility, which enhances operations and saves money.
“This wasn’t a want, by any stretch of any imagination,” Gualtieri said. “This was an absolute need that was eight years in the making.”
The current Administration Building is located in an old nursing home built in the 1950s.
Gualtieri said the new building would “provide really effective services for everybody for a very, very long time to come.”
Deputies now have onsite access to training equipment and an armory where they can clean and maintain firearms. There are new classrooms and a “multipurpose read-off” room with seating for 66, plus a computer lab with training space for 40, which doubles the current capacity.
Another new feature Gualtieri pointed out is enhanced security. The new building is equipped with magnetometers at the front door.
The new foyer is almost twice the size of the foyer at the old administration building. A separate window and adjoining meeting space is available in the foyer to receive paperwork. Interview rooms are located in a quiet location providing more privacy. A separate entrance makes Human Resources and Records department more accessible to citizens. The sheriff also has a new fleet maintenance garage with up to 11 repair bays available.
Communications is critical during an emergency. The new public safety complex contains all the critical components of the countywide radio system. In addition, it includes a 20-channel stand-alone radio site to provide countywide radio coverage to mobile radios in the event of a catastrophe.
The county’s vital data will be protected inside the 3,800 square foot state-of-the-art data center also housed inside the new facility. The Public Safety Complex has a parking garage with space for 677 vehicles. It has its own central energy plant, which has been designed for future expansion.
The cost of the new facility is about $81.4 million paid for with Penny for Pinellas funds.
“This particular project became the centerpiece of Penny for Pinellas, said Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard. “ I’m happy to say that this project is on budget and on schedule.”
The project is not quite finished.
“We’re probably about 85 percent complete, maybe 95 percent complete,” Gualtieri said. “There’s still a lot to be done. … still things we’re tweaking.”