Under Construction

Under Construction: Hurricane-Hardened Emergency Center in Florida Keys

As facilities professionals prepare for hurricane season, they should check out a hurricane-resistant emergency operations center (EOC) that’s currently under construction and is being built to weather the most dangerous Florida Keys storms: the new two-story Monroe County Emergency Operations and Communications Center on the Island of Marathon, which will be 28,321 square feet, including the areas at the bottom of the elevator and stair towers.

Rendering of Monroe County Emergency Operations and Communications Center.
Rendering courtesy of Monroe County, Fla., government

Lessons Learned

Officials decided the Florida Keys needed a new EOC because the existing one is in a cramped, temporary area on the top level of the Marathon Government Center; can’t withstand the power of strong hurricanes; and doesn’t have the dedicated space, technology, and equipment needed to respond to disasters promptly, according to Keys Weekly.

Right before Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys in 2017, EOC personnel had to relocate to the Ocean Reef Club almost 70 miles away because a report from the Florida Division of Emergency Management said the facility wasn’t safe to be occupied if threatened by a hurricane stronger than Category 2. Hurricane Irma was a Category 4.

The new EOC not only will ensure emergency personnel can stay in Marathon during the worst weather but also will have a state-of-the-art facility that will bring together various emergency departments that are currently in separate locations on the island.

Level of Resistance

The building “is designed for near absolute storm events; in essence, for the 10,000-year storm. This is a unique condition that impacts upon several elements of the complex; the elevation of the facility, (i.e., above the storm surge level) and for impact forces that exceed a Category 5 storm, capable of affecting every aspect of the exterior of the structure,” according to Architects Design Group, which is working on the construction project.

However, such resistance comes at a cost. While originally forecast to be $32 million, design and grant reporting requirements increased the estimated total price tag of this facility to approximately $37 million, Cary Knight, Monroe County Director of Project Management, told Key West Citizen.

Building Materials

“This is a pre-cast building system. Basically, we have foundations with continuous footings all the way around,” Project Manager Marshall Quarles of Ajax Building Company, which is managing this construction project, explained to Local 10 News.

According to Ajax, the building will have:

  • Precast concrete beams and columns with a site-cast panel system;
  • A roof designed as cast-in-place concrete that meets all shelter standards;
  • Storefront glazing tested for missile impact compliant with the Florida Building Code; and
  • Emergency backup power by a two-generator load-sharing agreement to power a fully functional EOC and an uninterrupted power supply for the facility, including the emergency 911 call center, for 96 hours.

Additionally, the facility, which Ajax described as “hurricane hardened,” is better able to prepare for emergencies because of its unique central location on the Florida Keys to the west of Marathon International Airport, which will enable people and supplies to get in and out more easily before a storm hits.

Wind Protection

“As designed, the building will provide near absolute life safety protection against hurricane wind speeds to serve the first responders, emergency managers, and other disaster staff that must remain behind in the event of a hurricane impacting Monroe County,” according to Ajax.

This facility is so durable that it can handle storms with sustained wind speeds of 220 miles per hour (mph), Knight told Key West Citizen.

Local 10 News reports this durability is the result of special waterproofing mixed with the building’s concrete.

220-mph winds could occur as part of a Category 5 hurricane, which the National Weather Service defines as one that has 157-mph winds or higher, during which “catastrophic damage will occur” and “a high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed with total roof failure and wall collapse.”

Flood Protection

The facility’s first floor is about 22 feet above ground level to avoid potential flooding from possible wave action.

Additionally, Ajax reports the building will have components such as storm drainage piping, inlets, and water detention areas to meet rain load requirements and comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 361 Section B7.2.4 Rainwater Drainage.

Furthermore, the backup generator will be protected against a 500-year flood event, Ajax explained, “by implementing specific activities or by locating the generator(s) outside the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) and shall be protected against wind with a rated enclosure based on its location requirements.”

Shelter Capabilities

Knight noted the facility will have septic tanks, drinking water tanks, and food so up to 150 employees can work for up to 4 days. It will also have emergency communications via satellite phone and Internet service.

“The building will be designed to meet and/or exceed FEMA’s requirements for a ‘safe room’ and thus will be designed to meet the FEMA P-361 Design and Construction for Community Safe Room’s guidance to provide ‘near-absolute protection,’ as well as [International Code Council] ICC 500 standards,” Ajax says.

Additionally, Shannon Weiner, director of Monroe County Emergency Management, told Key West Citizen that a 25-person dormitory space in the facility will be used as a training room when there’s no emergency.

Emergency Departments

Personnel will come from a variety of emergency departments.

The facility will house Monroe County Emergency Management, Monroe County Fire Rescue, and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center.

Additionally, it will provide adequate room for the Florida Department of Health, local hospitals, the American Red Cross, the military, utility personnel, and other county personnel.

“We will have the space in our new building where all operations can be coordinated together,” Weiner added.

Current Status

The Monroe County Emergency Operations and Communications Center broke ground in October 2022 and is being built mostly by local contractors and workers.

The first floor has been completed, along with the “topping off,” or completion, of the highest point of the facility, which was celebrated on April 25, 2023, according to Keys Weekly.

Key West Citizen reported most of the interior walls, with tilt-up panels, have been completed, allowing the building to be enclosed. Ductwork and conduits have also been installed.

The facility’s roof and exterior are being installed during late spring and summer 2023, and Key West Citizen reports the building’s double roof system will meet FEMA regulations.

Windows are expected to be installed in early September 2023.

While there have been supply chain issues regarding the facility’s electrical panels, they aren’t expected to delay the project’s estimated completion.

The building is projected to open in February 2024, which is slightly sooner than previous reports stating it will be completed by spring 2024.

Learn More

Facilities professionals seeking to learn more about building or renovating EOCs should check out Facilities Management Advisor’s “Back to Basics: PSAP and EOC Facilities.” For further hurricane preparedness coverage, read “Back to Basics: Preparing Your Facility for Hurricanes” and “Hurricane Season Safety Guidelines for Your Elevators.”

To view the Monroe County Emergency Operations and Communications Center under construction live, check out webcams from the Monroe County Government and Ajax.

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