FAYETTEVILLE -- Emergency services officials say Washington County's planned emergency operations center is needed and long overdue.
"It's something we've never really had," Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Good with the Fayetteville Fire Department said of the project. Good said while Fayetteville has its own emergency services manager, the county is mandated by state law to oversee and coordinate services.
"By law, we are under John Luther and the county," Good said. Luther is the county's emergency management director.
"An emergency event is not going to just affect Fayetteville. It is going to affect the whole county. It is very important for us," he said.
Washington County's Quorum Court on Thursday approved spending about $4.8 million on the planned emergency operations center. The Quorum Court previously approved about $1 million for architectural and design work.
County Judge Patrick Deakins said the initial cost estimate for the center is about $8.1 million. The remainder of the cost, now around $2.5 million, will come from the county general fund reserve of about $14 million. He said there may also be some federal grants available to help offset the cost.
Deakins said his goal is to begin dirt work on the project before the end of the year and to have the facility completed in March 2025.
Luther said the project has been a cooperative effort involving county officials and representatives of cities, fire departments and others.
He said the county has used existing facilities over the years, with none of them designed with emergency services in mind.
The Emergency Management Department's offices are housed in about 3,200 square feet made available by the state Fire Academy at its training facility in Lincoln. Prior to that, the offices were in downtown Fayetteville at 105 N. Mill Ave. in what is now the Northwest Arkansas Crisis Stabilization Unit.
Emergency Management was moved to the county annex briefly in early 2019 to make way for the crisis unit. That building was then designated for a new circuit judge's office and courtroom, and emergency services moved to Lincoln in November 2020.
Luther said the new center will be "hardened" against natural or man-made disasters, with the plans calling for about one-third of the building to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines to withstand tornadoes and other similar events. The facility will have its own communications center, power source and space to house emergency officials for days or weeks if needed.
Washington County has experienced numerous emergency situations locally and been called upon to assist with disasters and emergencies on the state, regional and national level, Luther said.
"From 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the 2009 ice storm to the Joplin tornado, we've utilized the facilities we've had in the county," Luther said.
He recalled during the ice storm, the generator wasn't sufficient to keep operations going, so they moved to the Road Department and took over a good part of its facility.
The January 2009 ice storm affected counties across Arkansas, dumping 1 to 2 inches of ice on trees and power lines in the state's northernmost counties, according to the National Weather Service.
At one time, according to the weather service, as many as 400,000 utility company customers lacked power and as many as 100,000 customers were still without power in February. The weather service said at least 18 deaths were linked to the ice storm.
Luther said county officials and others toured a number of emergency facilities while developing the county's plans, including the emergency center at Ozarks Electric Cooperative in Fayetteville. He said that facility was considered a model for the county and is "100% better than every county in Arkansas."
Ashley Harris, vice president for marketing and communications for Ozarks Electric, said the emergency center in the cooperative's offices on Wedington Drive in Fayetteville is about 5 years old.
Jim Yancey, supervisor of system operations for the cooperative, said the center is typically staffed with two operators on a shift and it operates "24/7, 365 days a year."
When severe weather is expected or when it affects the area, staffing is increased to meet the needs ,and the center has six work stations available, Yancey said. Another feature of the center is a video display "wall" with monitors that can show information from the weather service as well as the operational status of the cooperative's electrical grid. The center can operate the system remotely and dispatch crews into the field as needed to make repairs.
"It can go from mellow and quiet to chaotic in seconds," Yancey said.
The Ozarks Electric center helped guide the county in designing its own center, Luther said.
"We're going to be very similar," he said. "It depends on how we build out the operations center."
In addition to the emergency operations aspect, Luther said, the new facility will have room for training programs and conferences and will be available to local, state and national agencies as needed.
"You've got to have a designated amount of space for the number of partners you're going to have come help you," he said.