Fla. responders score new digs


 By Rachel Simmonsen
Palm Beach Post
Copyright 2007 The Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
 
STUART, Fla. — "Just listen."

Police Chief Ed Morley stood as still as a statue in his office at the city's new public safety complex, smiling as the room fell silent save a faint humming sound.

"Oh, my God," he said. "I can hear the air conditioning."

It's a big change from the constant din of his old digs, a cramped and dingy building where some officers turned closets into offices and others set up desks in hallways. Things got even more cramped after the 2004 hurricanes, which peeled the roof off parts of the 1950s-era building and forced the city's police and firefighters into trailers for the past 2 1/2 years.

"We're very blessed, and we're very grateful to the voters," Morley said of their $10 million new home, for which voters approved a 30-year, tax-exempt bond issue in August 2004.

The blue, green and orange building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard still needs some paint touch-ups inside. The lobby is mostly bare. Construction crews have yet to finish the parking lot out front.

Still, police and firefighters, who started moving in last month, say they're thrilled about the 43,000-square-foot complex that sits just behind where the old building stood. Work crews finished demolishing the old station Friday.

"This is living in a mansion," Assistant Fire Rescue Chief Dave Dyal said of the new complex.

The old station was big enough to house only one fire engine and an ambulance, he said. A truck used to fight brush fires had to sit out in the open. The new station has room for two engines, the brush truck and an ambulance, with plenty of room to spare.

The fire department's share of the building also includes sleeping quarters, a living room area and kitchen, plus new perks such as a library and a workshop. Before they had a library, firefighters preparing for a promotional exam had little luck finding a peaceful place to study, Dyal said. Without the workshop, they also had no place to make small repairs on truck equipment.

For the first time, the city has an official emergency operations center, a large room that links the fire department's side of the building with the police headquarters. The emergency center also provides seating for dozens of people, hookups for laptop computers and a projection screen. In the past, the city transformed the Courthouse Cultural Center, an art gallery, into its hurricane headquarters.

The new complex also features a small gym for police and firefighters, many of whom previously lifted weights in a garage behind the old station.

On the police side of the new building, officers who once filed reports in hallways now have rooms designed specifically for that purpose. A new "soft interview room" gives police a more comfortable place to interview children or women who have been assaulted, Sgt. Marty Jacobson said. The room features a couch and chair, with bamboo shutters on the windows and palm trees and kittens painted on the walls.

Police and the public will be able to use a handful of new conference rooms, a luxury not found in the old station. There also are enough offices for high-ranking officers and volunteers, with a few left over, Jacobson said.

The spacious headquarters give police a more peaceful environment for writing reports and working through complex cases, Morley said.

Some police and firefighters over the past three years often wondered whether their new headquarters would come to fruition. After winning the approval of voters to borrow money, city officials fell victim to rising construction costs, which bumped the building's price tag from $8.5 million to about $10 million. They deleted elements such as a shooting range and a fire training tower, but that wasn't enough. They did without decorative flourishes and passed on their first picks for architects, all of which delayed the project.

Late last year, the city commission flirted with the idea of repainting the building's exterior after some police and firefighters complained it looked more like a day-care center than a public safety complex. Commissioners decided to hold off.

Now, police and fire officials say it doesn't much matter what the outside looks like. They're just happy to be inside.

As Jacobson put it: "Who cares when you've been where we were for two years?"

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