By Jeff Poole
More than 30 years ago, most of the county’s emergency service calls were dispatched by one person out of a radio room at the Orange County Courthouse.
Tuesday afternoon, on an active construction site on Bloomsbury Road, county officials joined law enforcement, emergency communications, information technology and fire and rescue staff to “break ground” on the county’s new $12.2 million public safety facility that’s expected to serve the county’s needs for at least the next 20 years.
Orange County Emergency Communications Center Director and Public Safety Systems Manager Dominique Curry said construction on the site began Jan. 7 and has a projected completion date of Sept. 4, 2020.
“This building represents the vision of a cohesive approach to public safety for the citizens and visitors of Orange County,” she said, at Tuesday’s program. The new 34,000-square-foot facility will house the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, County of Orange Fire and EMS, Orange County communications center and IT department, while providing a state-of-the-art emergency operations center, future board of supervisors’ meeting room and training areas/community space.
“We truly are excited for the future of public safety and grateful to the leadership of Orange County for making this all possible,” Curry said.
The center site includes 34 acres beyond the western edge of the Orange County Airport purchased from Helen Marie Taylor for $850,000.
The building will feature single-story construction with one main public entrance into a central lobby space that serves each of the building’s tenants. The lobby, which has a distinctive rotunda feature, is separated from the rest of the facility via access-controlled doorways. There are customer service windows in the lobby for the sheriff’s office and fire and EMS administration office, since those agencies anticipate the most public interaction. Each entity would have a separate wing but would be connected by a main hallway. That building plan also includes almost 9,000-square feet of shared space.
Sheriff Mark Amos recounted a brief history of the evolution of the county’s communications and sheriff’s office operations during his 32 years with the county, beginning with the “radio room” anecdote.
In the 1980s, the sheriff’s office operated out of the Orange County Courthouse and the abandoned former Orange County Rescue Squad station behind it (where Wayne Modena’s State Farm office is now).
“Around 1990, when the Central Virginia Regional Jail opened, we moved our offices from there to where we are now,” he said. “We had a staff of about 20 then. We have a staff of about 50 now.”
The “new” sheriff’s office included a dispatch center where two employees dispatched all the county’s fire and EMS calls until a disagreement between then-Sheriff Bill Spence and the board of supervisors in 1996 led to a communications split. Law enforcement call dispatches remained at the sheriff’s office, while fire and rescue calls were handled by a new communications center in the basement of the Gordon Building.
Ten years later, having since outgrown its 1990 footprint, the sheriff’s office received $15,000 in county funds to expand.
“We had a budget of $15,000 to put on a 30 x 36-foot addition,” Amos said. “I knew there was no way we would get a contractor to take that job. I was chief deputy at the time and volunteered to serve as the general contractor.”
The employees of the sheriff’s office built about 90 percent of that addition, the sheriff said, with the same blockwork and everything. “With the exception of a wavy concrete floor, it was done very professionally,” he declared.
After he became sheriff, Amos said individual supervisors would discuss merging communications again, but those discussions didn’t gain traction until county administrator Bryan David arrived.
“With safety issues, a lack of space in the 911 center and the radio system not being up to standard, the county decided to fix the problems and move the communications centers back together,” he said. By 2018 the two dispatch centers had merged and the sheriff sent his six communications officers to the Gordon Building where all emergency calls were being dispatched.
“Imagine the amount of staff they had and throw six more people into it. They’re screaming over there; it’s tight,” he said. “Soon we’ll be right here. We’ve come a long way. It’s an exciting time for fire and EMS, for the communications center, IT department, me and my staff and the citizens of Orange County.
“In closing I’ll say this, ‘I sure am glad I’m not the general contractor for this.’ ”
District 2 Supervisor and board chair Jim White said the new project offers two distinct advantages to public safety—the more obvious one being the provision of adequate space for departments that have long since outgrown their quarters.
“Another piece, less well known and recognized, is that a lot of our systems, the public safety radio system being one of them—are really old. It’s hard to get parts to repair them,” he said. “This new building allows us to move to the state-of-the art with technology and data services, which, in turn, will allow our staff to better serve the citizens of the community, be more efficient about it and, frankly, do their jobs more safely.”
Right now, fire, rescue and sheriff’s office can’t speak to each other very directly, he noted, and many parts of the county do not have adequate radio coverage. “This initiative addresses all those issues and in the end, serve the citizens more effectively and get us to the level of service they expect.”
Because the nearby worksite was muddy from recent rains, most of Tuesday’s program was staged in the Booster Park parking area.
But following everyone’s remarks, an audience of about 50, made its way over to the jobsite where actual ground had been broken more than five months ago. Still, shiny gold shovels, bright white hard hats and some carefully placed gravel piles had been assembled for the ceremonial exercise.
A line-up of county staff, contractors, engineers and officials tossed a few shovelfuls of gravel to complete the program.
At that evening’s board of supervisors’ meeting, the board, needing to create a 911 address for the building’s location, agreed to name it Government Center Drive.
“It’s not the most imaginative name,” District 1 Supervisor Mark Johnson countered, though District 3 Supervisor Teel Goodwin suggested the county could change it at any time.