ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay was square in the crosshairs of Category 4 Hurricane Charley in 2004 until it made a right turn and devastated Charlotte County.
That near-miss, when about 425,000 residents were ordered to evacuate, was followed in 2005 by the most active Atlantic hurricane season since record-keeping began.
The storms served as a wake-up call for Pinellas County, where disaster preparation and recovery efforts were housed in the downtown Clearwater basement of a former jail vulnerable to flooding and unable to withstand a Category 3 storm.
The result is a new $81.4 million public safety complex on Ulmerton Road in Largo that will house the Emergency Operations Center, the county’s 911 call center and a new administrative center for the sheriff’s office. Funding for the project came from Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
County leaders on Tuesday had their first official look at the 218,000-square-foot complex, which is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and has sufficient supplies to house 700 essential county and state agency personnel for up to three weeks in the aftermath of a disaster.
“Residents should be proud we can build this kind of facility not only to keep the county running in an emergency, but to provide our emergency services with the up-to-date facilities they need,” county Commissioner Charlie Justice said.
The five-building complex was designed to be what planners deem a “last man standing” structure, able to keep functioning even when most services have failed.
Its 41-acre site is at one of the highest points in Pinellas, so it is not vulnerable to storm surge and is outside the county’s evacuation zones. The complex sits atop 70-foot-deep stone columns that enable it to withstand winds in excess of 200 mph.
Should power fail, the building automatically will switch to a 2.5-megawatt generator, with a duplicate generator on standby should that fail.
If the county water supply is interrupted, the building has access to a groundwater well that can pump 100 gallons per minute, and up to 23,000 gallons of sewage can be stored.
On the second floor, the center has stations for 118 emergency planners from county and state agencies and others, including the county’s health department, the Red Cross, the Florida Highway Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the event of cellphone towers and land lines failing, emergency staff will be able to communicate via satellite telephones.
Three huge screens dominate the main room, giving up-to-the-minute information of storm paths and whether every Pinellas community has power, water and other services. If a disaster strikes, another screen maps the location of 911 calls and displays reports from first responders.
“Within minutes after the winds subside, we’ll be able to get out and know where the worst part of the county was impacted and where to direct our initial efforts,” said Bruce Moeller, Pinellas County’s interim chief of staff.
The sheriff’s office administration center includes a mat room for deputies to practice defensive tactics, a six-station armory, classrooms and a room for weekly roll calls. It will house almost 100 workers who were spread across the county, some moving out of leased office space.
Dispatchers from Sunstar, the company that provides ambulance service to Pinellas, will move into the center later this year.
The 911 call center in the complex’s third floor enabled the county and the sheriff’s office last week to merge their 911 call operations, saving valuable time during an emergency, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
Previously, callers seeking law enforcement assistance would have to be transferred to a sheriff’s dispatcher.
The center will handle roughly 500,000 emergency calls and about the same number of non-emergency calls a year for virtually all of Pinellas.
The new facility will dramatically improve the county’s ability to coordinate its response to emergency calls, Gualtieri said.
But he said he is frustrated that Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Largo and Clearwater have maintained their own 911 police dispatch.
Callers in those communities needing police help have to be transferred to a police dispatcher in that city.
That often leads to callers hanging up before they have repeated details of their emergency, leaving dispatchers unable to convey crucial information needed to assist police and firefighters, Gualtieri said.
“This should be a no-brainer,” he said. “It needs to change; the cities need to get on board with this.”