By Jeff Poole
Orange County officials have a solid track record of repurposing old buildings for county office space. The county’s primary administration office—the Gordon Building on Main Street—once was the Leggett department store. The nearby building services office was the Main Street Dollar General. The county also has adaptively reused the former library building on Belleview Avenue (for public works) and the historic clerk’s office next to the courthouse (economic development and tourism).
But for the first time since the Sedwick Building in the mid-1990s, Orange County is constructing a purpose-built facility. Make that multi-purpose.
The new Orange County Public Safety Building is expected to open this fall after more than two years of construction. The expansive 34,000 square-foot facility will house the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, County of Orange Fire and EMS administration, Orange County communications center and the county IT department. It also has a large meeting room for the Orange County Board of Supervisors that can double as an emergency operations center.
Except for the sheriff’s office, which has its own stand-alone facility on Porter Road, each of those other offices is either tucked into a corner of the Gordon Building or in another county-owned building.
The modern, new facility features 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 distinguishable 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 most often interact with the public.
Each entity has a separate wing but is connected by a main hallway. The building plan includes almost 9,000-square feet of shared space, including a large shared break room and kitchen and a fully-stocked gym.
During a recent tour of the nearly completed facility with leaders of the building’s future tenants, Orange County Administrator Ted Voorhees noted the interconnectivity of the design is an essential element of four county departments that work closely together.
The communications center dispatches calls to both sheriff’s deputies and county fire and EMS—who often times are needed at the same incidents. The county’s IT department is essential to each of the emergency services agencies—as well as the balance of county offices—operating efficiently.
“An organizational culture that’s supportive and works together is a force-multiplier,” Voorhees said. “This facility really breaks down those silos. We’re ready to get in here and work together to create long term benefits and value for county taxpayers.”
“We all work closely together, so it’s good to have that communal space,” Orange County Fire and EMS Chief Nathan Mort noted. “The more we spend time together, the better we work together.”
As much as the facility was built for current and future needs, District 4 Supervisor and board chair Jim Crozier noted it can be doubled in size by wing as departmental needs require. All told, the $12.3 million facility sits on a nine-acre site.
“We can accommodate expansion without disproportionate investment,” Crozier said.
Those who enter the new facility will find the large board meeting room to the left. Unlike the current board meeting room in the basement of the Gordon Building, the new room can accommodate more than 200 people for a public meeting, with large flat screen monitors on the walls that will broadcast the materials being discussed. Additionally, Mort noted it can accommodate more than a dozen stations as the emergency operations center, with adjacent breakout rooms for specialized functions or operations.
“It’s a very functional room and the entire building is rather utilitarian,” Crozier offered.
A hallway behind the board dais leads to a secure location where board members can conduct closed session and, through a series of adjacent rooms, can connect to the sheriff’s office and the balance of the building, including a large, shared conference room at the confluence of three of the four wings.
The sheriff’s office represents the largest share of the facility and, with fire and EMS, offers public access windows for citizen inquiries.
Notably, the nearly 10,000 square-foot new sheriff’s office offers substantially more room for evidence, records, offices and investigations than the current 6,000 square-foot Porter Road building.
The new office includes temporary evidence lockers, a large evidence room, an armory, holding cell, interview rooms, a large records room, space for administrators, investigators, TRIAD, civil process and patrol deputies and an enclosed vehicle port and more.
“In terms of thoughtfulness and purpose-built features, this puts us on par with any public service agency in the state,” Voorhees noted.
The county’s fire and EMS department is the other “front-facing” agency with a public access window. Chief Mort said in planning for his department’s administrative offices, he was asked for a 20-year vision. In addition to space for offices, supplies and records, the EMS wing also includes a secure medical vault, as well as a large open space for training (currently) and future growth (if necessary).
While the building will house the fire and EMS administrative staff, crews will continue to respond from the fire and EMS stations throughout the county.
“We looked at crews responding from here, but it wasn’t cost-effective,” Crozier said.
The balance of the building’s office space is fairly evenly split between emergency communications and the county’s IT department which share a common corridor.
As much as any of the agencies, IT and emergency communications have been shoe-horned into existing space as technology outpaced facilities.
While the existing communications center is lodged in the back of the basement at the Gordon Building, the new space includes proper administrative and training space, storage, lockers, and even a quiet room where communications officers can decompress after a particularly stressful call. The emergency communications center offers shift supervisors an open view with a light system above each of six consoles identifying the status of the current call. The center is large enough to expand to 10-12 consoles, and features wall monitors alerting communications officers to weather and traffic conditions, as well as call status.
“This department is going through more change than anyone else, with the new computer-aided dispatch, the new public radio system and next generation 911,” Voorhees said.
But as much change as the county’s emergency communications department is undergoing, the department that is seeing the greatest expansion of its operations—at least in terms of space—is the county’s IT department, Crozier suggested.
“Where they are now, they went from having a few computers to being packed in there like sardines,” he said.
County IT Director Larry Clement and his team now will have a certified data center instead of a modified closet. The new facility will consolidate servers and equipment scattered around the county, he said, citing existing computer equipment located next to the hot water tank at the sheriff’s office as one example.
“With this facility, everything will be temperature-controlled with back-up and redundancy,” he said. “This is a huge step up from where we are now.”
As contractors and work crews put the finishing touches on the building, Crozier credited Assistant County Administrator for Operations, Kurt Hildebrand for shepherding the massive project.
“He has overseen this project and done a phenomenal job.”
Hildebrand estimated the departments would be moving in no later than Oct. 4 with the facility opening to the public soon after.