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Lee County emergency operations center moves forward

By Staff | Apr 24, 2010

Lee County is moving forward with a $15.35 million plan to build a new Emergency Operations Center off of Ortiz Avenue in Fort Myers.
The Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-1 Tuesday to go with Gates Butz Institutional Construction, a contractor out of Naples, as the project’s construction manager. Commissioner Frank Mann dissented.
“We do not have $12 to 15 million available right now,” he said. “It’s just not the time during this recession to spend money that we don’t have, and that we desperately need for other projects.”
The total construction cost of the project is estimated at $11.62 million, of which $3 million to $4 million will come from state and federal grants.
Mann also argued that there is no need to replace the existing facility.
“The building we have is quite adequate,” he said. “The building was tested by four hurricanes, back to back, just a few years ago and passed with flying colors.”
Built in the mid-70s, the existing facility was created to serve as a fallout shelter in a nuclear attack. David Saniter, emergency programs manager for Lee County Emergency Management, noted it is not designed for hurricanes.
“It may be a strong building, but it’s not elevated for hurricanes and it’s not really built for hurricanes,” he said. “If we would have gotten hit by a bigger storm, I don’t know. With Charley, we were lucky.”
The building also does not match the county’s increased population.
“It’s too small. Because of our population, we need to assemble more people and public safety agencies and their partners in an emergency,” Saniter said.
Florida statutes mandate that governments create and manage an emergency management group. According to Daniel Cruz, capital projects construction manager with Lee County Public Works, Lee has ranked No. 1 in the state for years in terms of needing a new facility.
“We are the most deficient emergency operations center in Florida,” he said.
Charlotte, Collier and Hendry counties all have recently built new facilities.
According to officials, the new facility will be built next to the existing one, at 2665 Ortiz Ave. The 27,000-square-foot center will be a “hardened” building, able to withstand winds of up to 200 mph. It will feature independent communication services, a reserve supply of potable water and generators.
“It’s designed to survive without power independently for a period of seven days,” Cruz added. “We looked at all the aspects of the building in terms of survivability.”
Saniter said the existing building is elevated 23 feet above sea level, while the new facility will be 32 feet. It will be updated with new technology, and it will offer more space and accompany more personnel during an emergency.
“It will also give us the needed break-out rooms, where we can discuss in smaller groups rather than being in one large room,” he said.
The new facility will house offices for emergency management, a training center and a situation room, all of which exist in the current building. It also will feature a data center for county to house the servers, which does not currently exist in the older building.
According to Saniter, the county dispatch center, shift command for Emergency Medical Services and government communications network will remain in operation at the old facility. He added that there have been talks about expanding the dispatch center or housing the EMS administration or the public safety administration at the old building later on down the road.
The initial plan for the new building called for a 50,000-square-foot center.
“This is stripped down pretty much to its core,” Cruz said. “I think it’s a good example of government doing the best that it can to build efficiently.”
By cutting the size of the facility nearly in half, the county saved on design and construction costs. It also saved in other areas, like keeping services at the old building and not building space at the new facility for the public safety administration. They are currently located off of Six Mile Cypress Parkway.
The county also removed from the initial plan a 10,000-square-foot storage area that would have protected vehicles and equipment during an emergency.
“When you’ve got to cut, you’ve got to cut,” he said. “You do what you do.”
According to Cruz, the county also saved money on the project by building the new building next to the old one. For example, the old building needs a new communications tower. The new center will come with a new tower, so the old tower will get tied into that, saving the county from building another tower.
“We would have needed a tower anyway,” he said.
The new facility and the old building will use the same entrance, and parking at the old facility will serve as overflow for the new building, enabling the new building to accommodate more vehicles. The new center will offer shelter for mobile command posts in an emergency or disaster as well, officials added.
County officials examined about 13 sites before settling on building next to the existing facility, Cruz added. The land is also under a long-term lease with the city of Fort Myers, which saved the county more money on the project.
“This is a countywide responsibility so the funds that are spent and the building that is created will benefit all of the citizens of Lee County,” he said.
Officials anticipate beginning construction in January or February 2011, with a tentative completion date of August 2012. Saniter added that a plan for a new emergency operations center has been in the works since January 2005.
“It’s a long time coming,” he said.