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New HCC complex to offer a gamut of response training

A $4 million public safety facility will be constructed at Haywood Community College over the next two years, providing police, fire and rescue workers of all stripes a state-of-the-art training center for simulations, drills and classes.

The HCC Board of Trustees formally voted on Sept. 6 to proceed with the project after nearly two years of planning.


“This is really exciting for the college and our partnership with the community,” said HCC President Dr. Barbara Sue Parker.

A contingency of police chiefs, fire chiefs, the sheriff’s chief deputy and emergency management personnel from across Haywood County lined a wall of the HCC board room and applauded following the vote.

Final construction plans will be drawn up in coming months. The project will go out to bid in late winter, with a target groundbreaking in spring or early summer, and project completion by summer 2016.

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The facility will revolutionize training for firefighters in Haywood County, said Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb.

The planned HCC project calls for a three-story training tower where firefighters can practice putting out simulated fires in various settings, where law enforcement can practice building sweeps for rogue gunmen, or rescue workers can practice extracting dummies.

Fire, law enforcement and rescue workers have rigorous ongoing training criteria, with annual benchmarks they must meet to keep their certifications current. When they’re lucky, fire departments can find old, dilapidated houses to burn for practice exercises. 

“Right now, we have to hunt buildings,” Webb said.

But that is getting harder, due to red tape and liability concerns, Webb said.

It’s also more risky to firefighters, since the old structures may not be sound. And they have to be cautious of keeping the fire from spreading to neighboring homes and dealing with the environmental issue of sending all that smoke into the air.

The new training tower will be removing the risk without sacrificing the real-world experience.

“It is a controlled environment using gas and theater smoke,” Webb said.


Sky is the limit

For law enforcement, finding buildings to conduct training drills is also a challenge. A simulation was recently staged at the old Department of Social Services, an empty four-story office building in Waynesville, where officers practiced sweeping and clearing a building. Another was conducted at Tuscola High School, allowing officers to act out a school shooting scenario.

But with the new training tower at HCC, law enforcement — and in particular the special response units — will have a go-to facility for training.

“We are very pleased the construction is going to begin soon. It will increase the level of training in our community,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. 

For example, officers could practice slipping into a building where an armed gunman has taken hostages.

“Obviously you aren’t going to walk in the front door. So we could rappel from the top of the tower and make entry to the building from a window opening and then work through the building to clear it,” Hollingsed said. “If you have a crime in progress with an armed subject barricaded inside, or an active shooter scenario, we want to train how to clear and secure the building.”

The training tower is big enough that multiple exercises could be held simultaneously — a fire raging, a search and rescue sweep and a SWAT team pursuing suspects.

“The progressive thing about what we are doing compared to other facilities is we are doing this cross-discipline training within the same space,” said Brek Lanning, an architect by training and the director of campus development. “That is a post-9/11 trend, to open those communication avenues between those three disciplines of fire, rescue and law enforcement.”

That’s particularly exciting to Haywood County Emergency Services Director Greg Shuping. When a major disaster or emergency strikes, it takes central coordination, but conducting those kinds of drills is logistically difficult. 

“It takes coordination to pull together five different departments to respond to an emergency,” Shuping said. “If they have practiced together before, when something big happens, they know each others’ names and it works.”

Meanwhile, those running the command post can practice large-scale incident management, Shuping said.

The public safety training center will also include a large classroom building with flexible space for classes and lectures and an equipment bay for fire trucks and ambulances.

“Just the designated classroom space is going to help us immensely,” Hollingsed said. “That will make us more efficient in the delivery of training to our officers.”

The training facility will also be a drawing card for students seeking their Basic Law Enforcement Training.

Parker said the training simulation tower and public safety complex will no doubt be a drawing card for HCC in attracting students from afar. The college expects a bump in the number of students coming through its BLTE program as a result, Parker said. 

The training facility will be built on 16 acres adjacent to campus, a tract that was given to the college by the county. The footprint of the classroom buildings and training simulation tower will only be about 3.5 acres, with the rest of the site largely unsuitable for building due to the terrain.

The site abuts the lower section of campus, on the far side of the mill pond. Plans call for joining it to the main campus with a road and sidewalks.

“Pedestrian access will help make it feel more a part of the campus,” Lanning said.


Paying for the project

The $4 million training center will be paid for primarily through a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked by county commissioners for capital projects at HCC. The quarter-cent sales tax was approved by voters in a countywide referendum in 2008, with the understanding that revenue from the sales tax would be dedicated to campus building projects. Haywood was one of the only counties in the state where voters approved an optional sales tax at the ballot box, indicating broad public support for HCC. 

The college has more than $2 million already set aside for the project. The college hasn’t been spending the full proceeds of the quarter-cent sales tax each year, and the unspent balance has accrued into a tidy nest egg.

The college will also tap insurance payments stemming from a fire that destroyed HCC’s sawmill and money received for satellite buildings in Clyde destroyed in the Pigeon River flooding of 2004.

County commissioners have agreed to borrow the remaining balance needed for the project — around $1.8 million. A formal vote by the county commissioners to finance the project will come next year, once it goes out to bid.

Loan payments will be covered using annual proceeds of the quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for HCC projects, said Haywood County Finance Director Julie Davis. 

Currently, the quarter-cent sales tax is bringing in about $1.4 million a year. The majority is already committed to annual debt payments for the new Creative Arts Building at HCC, a $10.2 million project completed two years ago. Loan payments on the Creative Arts Building amount to $1 million annually right now, and will taper off to $750,000 over the next decade, leaving enough left over each year to also cover loan payments for the public safety training center.

“That, of course, depends on whether sales tax continues to come in at the current level,” Davis said.

Trustees question where maintenance money will come from 

Eleventh hour reservations over who will pay for the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of a new $4 million public safety training facility at Haywood Community College briefly sidetracked a planned vote on the project at an HCC board of trustees meeting this week.

HCC Trustee Bill Yarborough raised concerns that HCC’s would be stretched too thin if it had to fund maintenance of the new training facility out of its current appropriation from the county. Yarborough wanted to get a commitment first that its maintenance budget would be increased to cover the added costs.

“We have to make sure we aren’t baseline funded,” Yarborough said. “If they aren’t willing to do this, I don’t know where it would come from. I don’t see how we could take this on.”

Yarborough suggested the board approve the project with a caveat — one that hedges construction of the training center only if HCC can get a commitment for additional maintenance funds.

“We’ve lost all leverage once we sign this,” Yarborough said.

HCC Board Member Mary Ann Enloe said fears over maintenance costs shouldn’t hold up the project.

“I’m not willing to do anything that would hold the project up. We are ready to turn dirt,” Enloe said.

But HCC’s current maintenance allotment can only be stretched so far, said HCC Board Member Tom McNeil.

“If you don’t have the funds to maintain it, it is a real problem. We can’t take it away from our other classroom maintenance,” McNeil said. “It is going to cost the county commissioners some money.”

In the spirit of looking under every rock, HCC trustees briefly broached the idea of volunteer fire departments or town police departments chipping in, since they will benefit from the building.

HCC Trustees Chair Richard Lanning said the community will hopefully recognize more maintenance is needed, but was also remiss to attach stipulations to the project vote.

“It will be a good thing for the community and the region,” said Lanning. 

HCC has seen a dramatic loss in funding for maintenance and routine improvement projects, like parking lot repaving and roof replacements.

In 2008, HCC got $400,000 in maintenance funds from the county. In the recession, that dropped to a low of $165,000.

It’s now back up to $275,000, according to Haywood County Finance Officer Julie Davis.

It’s not enough to address maintenance backlogs resulting from years of lower funding, and definitely not enough to cover the added maintenance costs that would come with the public safety training complex, according to the college.

“Obviously the maintenance is going to be extensive because of the nature of what you are doing in the building, busting stuff and burning stuff,” said Brek Lanning, director of campus development.

Yarborough said HCC shouldn’t bear the burden of maintaining the facility itself. Better training for fire fighters, officers and rescue workers benefit every resident of the county, he said.

“The community needs to know it is for their own good,” Yarborough said. “Surely we can sell that to the community.”

Yarborough said commissioners may be more amenable to increased maintenance funding for the training center if the community at large was behind it.

HCC trustees asked a contingent of fire chiefs, police chiefs and emergency personnel in the audience if they would go to bat for additional maintenance funding when the time came. A nod of heads indicated they would join the college in lobbying commissioners for the additional maintenance funding down the road.

HCC President Dr. Barbara Sue Parker said she appreciated how thoughtful and diligent the board has been during the study and feasibility phase.

“We appreciate the commitment you have made and we will work together and find some money somewhere,” Parker said.


What’s your emergency?

A three-story drill tower is the capstone of a $4 million public safety training center planned for Haywood Community College. It’s the Swiss Army Knife equivalent of simulating emergency scenarios.

It’s got mock bedrooms and kitchens to catch on fire and put out. It’s got an elevator shaft to rappel down, and trap doors to pull victims out of.

It’s got a replaceable section of the roof firefighters can chop through with an axe to practice roof entry and rescue from a burning building.

It’s even got a coveted attic fire simulation area — something Buncombe County’s new $20 million public safety training facility doesn’t even have.

A section of the training tower has moveable walls and furniture, so those running the exercise can arrange and rearrange the floor plan of a house — giving trainees sweeping for victims in a burning building a fresh experience each time.

There’s even a jail cell for law enforcement to practice wrestling belligerent or combative suspects into holding.

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