After nearly a decade of discussion, planning and a bit of interagency squabbling, Mobile County officials opened a $10.5 million emergency operations center (EOC) just as the 2018 hurricane season began.
The EOC will serve as a centralized location used for coordinating multiple local and state agencies before, during and after emergencies that impact the area. It will also house the offices of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency.
Prior to its construction, both functions were based out of the county’s 1950s-era facility on McGregor Avenue that has presented a challenge for first responders for years because of its restricted space and outdated technology.
During a ceremonial opening for the facility last week, Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson said the effort to build the facility had “truly been a team effort” between the county, the state, the city of Mobile and Alabama’s federal representatives.
“This has been a top priority for the county for over eight years to address the problem of inadequate space and facilities for first responders who are activated during times of emergency and natural disaster, and really, the need existed long before that,” Hudson added.
The new facility, adjacent to the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center on Zeigler Boulevard, is 31,000 square feet — quadruple the 7,500-square-foot space on McGregor.
It houses 78 workstations and features sleeping and living quarters because representatives of multiple agencies could be there for days in the event of a significant emergency.
Congressman Bradley Byrne was among several state and federal officials on hand for the unveiling of the new EOC. He said the facility is necessary for Mobile because the Gulf Coast is prone to major hurricanes, adding the federal response to such events isn’t always immediate.
“We’ve been told for years that you all are the ones responsible in the lead-up to a storm, during a storm and for the first few days afterward — not the federal government,” Byrne said. “The important work in these events is done by state and local officials out of buildings like this.”
The June 1 unveiling was intentionally set on the first day of the 2018 hurricane season.
Mobile County EMA Director Ronnie Adair said he’d thought the first emergency response of this year would be coordinated out of the newly constructed EOC, but when subtropical storm Alberto came to the Gulf Coast a week early, it forced one last operation out of the old facility.
Serving as the EMA’s director since 2009 and an employee for 25 years, Adair said a new EOC was a long time coming. He said he was “overwhelmed” by how the facility has turned out, adding that it is very likely one of the best, if not the best such facility in the United States.
“They’ve worked day and night trying to get this done over the years, and here we have the sweat and tears from all of that work,” he said. “It’s really amazing, but it would have been impossible without the partnerships that came up with the funding for this project.”
While the focus of Friday’s event was “working together,” finding the funding for the EOC over the past eight years caused some occasional friction among the entities it will serve. Even Hudson said getting everything in place to start construction in 2016 was “a struggle” at times.
Around $2 million in federal grants got the ball rolling on the project in 2010, $800,000 of which went into drawing up design plans. That initially priced construction north of $15 million, which was too costly for some members of the county commission to support.
The project stalled as plans for a cheaper option were drawn up, and the state had to step in to keep the county from losing grant funding over the delay. There was even some time when officials were concerned the county would have to repay the initial $2 million it received.
The city of Mobile contributed the 8.3-acre property as well as $500,000, but Mayor Sandy Stimpson was asked to quadruple that contribution after the MCCD Board backtracked on an agreement to purchase the old EMA facility.
That course change created a $1.5 million funding gap for the EOC after the commission had already publicly announced plans to build it. At the time, Hudson publicly criticized Stimpson when the city declined to increase its contribution to the county project.
Mobile County spokeswoman Katherine Eddy said the old facility on McGregor will continue to be used as a backup EOC for Mobile County EMA as well as a backup facility for the MCCD.
In fact, the facility has to continue serving that purpose because it’s owned by the board of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service, which put tight restrictions on what the county can use the building for.