Suffolk, Va., to build emergency operations center

When tornadoes tore through Suffolk, Va., in April, the city's emergency operations center had to be pulled out of plastic bins in a fire department closet.

It worked, but now officials are looking forward to something better.

A new public safety center on King's Fork Road will house a permanent emergency operations headquarters with wireless communications and a security system that includes electronic locks, cameras and motion sensors.

The center will have multiple monitors so officials can track weather and other conditions throughout the city during emergencies like the April tornadoes, which caused more than $28 million in damage.

Work could begin in January; Fire Chief Mark Outlaw anticipates move-in by early 2010. Bids were due Friday for the project, budgeted at $7.9 million , he said.

It has been in the works for years, but Suffolk officials say now is a good time to get started.

"Construction costs are down because you have so much competition for very little work," said Gerry Jones, director for capital programs and buildings.

The city already saved when Suffolk public schools deeded 4 acres to the city for the King's Fork project.

The 25,000-square-foot facility is part of a 10-year capital improvements plan that includes five more stations.

The public safety facility will also house a secondary back up 911 center, administration offices and a three-bay fire station equipped with an ambulance, a fire engine and a ladder truck. It will serve the area around Va. 10 and U.S. 460 - "the first of several key holes or voids that we're filling," Outlaw said.

"This is one of the obviously high growth corridors in the city," Jones said.

While most Hampton Roads cities are seeing less growth, Suffolk's population increased by about 2,500 a year between 2000 and 2007, for a total of about 7,000 new households, fire officials have said.

Outlaw said fire and rescue aims to respond to calls within five minutes, but some places are so far away it can take three times that.

The King's Fork Public Safety Center - the second new fire station since Suffolk merged with Nansemond City in 1974 - should meet that five-minute goal inside the response area, he said.