tampabay.com

Emergency center open to ideas

The county's current facility is crowded. But should the new one share a roof with the city?

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published October 3, 2006


TAMPA - Hillsborough County commissioners plan to hire a consultant to explore building a bigger emergency operations center, and one official wants the city of Tampa to share the new space.

"Half the battle is just having everybody together so we can talk directly to them," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "We need to be able to instantly communicate."

He plans to bring up the discussion about a joint emergency operations facility at Wednesday's commission meeting.

Larry Gispert, Hillsborough's emergency management director, said the county's center at 2711 E Hanna Ave. was state of the art when it opened in February 1993. Before moving to East Tampa, the emergency operations center occupied the basement of the county health department downtown.

The county's emergency facility was built with the capacity to house 75 representatives from agencies that respond to emergencies, Gispert said. Almost twice that number filled the building in 2004, when the center went to full activation for Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

The crowded quarters were more than the building could handle. Gispert said the air conditioning system couldn't keep up, and industrial fans from Home Depot had to be bought. Emergency officials slept on the floor and in chairs.

"We have outgrown this facility," Gispert said. "We do the best with what we've got. It would just be a whole lot easier and more efficient if we were in a larger building with both the city and county co-located."

When Hurricane Ivan was churning its way toward Tampa in 2004, Mayor Pam Iorio wanted to use the county emergency operations media room to address the public, because the city didn't have one. Her request was denied, because county commissioners wanted the public to get their information from one source.

State law puts the county in charge of responding to emergencies.

"This is an example of where the city and county can work together," Sharpe said.

Iorio agrees.

"Our community would be better served to have one emergency operations center that houses both the city and the county so that our communications and coordination during a storm event or any other emergency will be seamless," she said.

"I am supportive of the idea and will work with Commissioner Sharpe and the other commissioners to move in this direction."

The city of Tampa transforms a conference room and meeting space in its 911 dispatch center into emergency operations headquarters when it has to activate. That facility is next door to the county's center on Hanna Avenue.

Sometimes, to communicate with city officials, Gispert said, county officials have to go "out in the weather and walk across the retention pond."

He said emergency management used to be considered a seasonal job, because officials dealt mostly with hurricanes. Now, they deal more with man-made hazards and terrorism, he said.

To make the most use of a new facility, Gispert said, functions such as traffic management control and some county security operations could be housed there too.

"We're just pretty much open to anything that fits the mold" of emergency operations, Gispert said.

Sharpe said there are agencies and businesses that officials like to communicate with during emergencies, like Tampa Electric, Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart, but they literally don't have room for them at the table. Sharpe said his vision of a collaborative emergency operations center would include enough space for them, as well as Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace officials.

"We don't know how big this box should be, we don't know how much this box should cost us if we should get the permission to buy it," Gispert said. "Our goal is to get permission to let us discuss this."

A study by the county administrator this year found the emergency operations center had insufficient space and recommended hiring a consultant. Sharpe said commissioners should bring the consultant in this month.

If a joint emergency operations facility becomes a reality, Sharpe said it would be eligible for state money as a regional response center.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.