The inadequacy of Swansboro’s Emergency Operations Center became apparent during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Since then the town has struggled with ensuring that the seat of government – people and equipment – remains safe while working during times of natural disasters, specifically hurricanes.

As it turns out, it is not a situation unique to the town. Still, in the months since the town’s Public Safety Facility – the presumptive EOC – showed its many weaknesses during Florence, town officials have been presented with very expensive options for correcting the problem.

An engineering report on all of the town’s facilities provided a sobering assessment: Neither the Public Safety Facility nor any of the structures on the town hall campus are considered safe for town staff during a major – anything more than a Category 1 – storm event, according to Chris Seaberg, town manager. (See related article.)

At the town commission’s Jan. 11 meeting, which took place remotely on the Zoom platform, Seaberg presented a way to go forward with determining a plan to address the shortcoming. The next step is a $25,000 study of three primary options. The three options on his list, all of which are considered long-term, are:

• Repair and restore the Public Safety Facility with the necessary upgrades to meet the standards to safely operate an EOC along with fire and police operations within the 2018 N.C. Building Codes.

• In addition to the above repair and restoration of the PSF, do additional upgrades to accommodate current staffing needs along with the anticipated needs through the year 2030.

• Purchase additional land to relocate public safety operations into a new facility with expansion capabilities to handle anticipated needs through the year 2050.

Three firms expressed an interest in taking on the study, LS3P of Wilmington, Moseley Architects of Raleigh and The Wooten Company of Raleigh.

“All three are well qualified for the project we are pursuing with excellent references,” Seaberg told commissioners. “My recommendation would be to contract with The Wooten Company. The town has used this firm in the past for various projects and seemed to be pleased with the deliverables.”

For each of the three scenarios, the consultant will be asked to provide price estimates and initial design functions in order to convey a conceptual concept.

Seaberg pointed out several months ago that these are long-term options and there is an immediate need for a suitable EOC. Thus the town has made arrangements to utilize a section of Swansboro United Methodist Church for an EOC.

In December, the town and the church entered into a five-year agreement allowing the town to set up and operate an EOC in Building 2. The church, which is at the corner of N.C. 24 and Old Hammock Road, is made up of three buildings. The original sanctuary, built in the late-1960s, is Building 1. The current sanctuary, built in the mid-1990s, is Building 2, and the newest section, used for contemporary worship, a child care center and as a fellowship hall, Building 3, was built about five years ago.

Swansboro would primarily be using the basement of Building 2. That area includes Sunday school rooms, a bunk room, a kitchen and restroom/shower facilities. However, there is no generator.

Mark Tessing, Swansboro Fire Department chief, said a portable generator could be used for the duration of a storm. Seaberg said the town would pay to have a generator hookup installed.

The cost of renting a portable generator would be covered by FEMA, provided there is a disaster declaration, Seaberg said.

With the agreement in place, “That is basically on standby,” Seaberg said of the church. “It provides a safe place to have staff during a storm.” But, he added, “The biggest drawback is the missing equipment.” Rescue and firefighting vehicles and equipment are kept at the Public Safety Facility. “Do we park the equipment in the elements or leave it in the station? What we don’t want is for our equipment to face the elements. We want to make sure we are protecting the public investment.”

When the floor was opened for discussion among commissioners Jan. 11, the talk turned to other options for an EOC.

Commissioner Frank Tursi said his concern is the cost of the three options on the table. Seaberg estimated the costs for choosing one of the three would be between $1 million and $6 million.

Ultimately, two more options were added. One is to simply not have an EOC and instead fall under Onslow County. The other is to continue using a secure existing site, such as the Methodist Church.

Tursi, not for the first time, suggested the town consider not establishing an EOC and instead allow Onslow County Emergency Management to cover the town, if possible.

Ken Jackson, Swansboro Police Department chief, expressed some reservations with that suggestion. His argument was that emergency services personnel could offer a quicker and more efficient response from a Swansboro EOC.

As for continuing with the arrangement in place, Tessing, the fire chief, said his concern with that was the equipment. Equipment would be outside at the church or left several blocks away at the PSF.

Following the meeting, Tursi said he wants a clear picture of all the options before he decides what might be best for the town. He wants the study to present that.

“The simple and truthful answer for me at the moment is: I don’t know,” he said in an email. “I don’t know what practical benefits the taxpayers of Swansboro derive from having a local EOC. Before I could support spending $1 to $6 million I would have to be convinced that there are meaningful paybacks to public safety, such as shortened response times. I will suggest that the consultants devote the first chapter of their report to a detailed explanation of the emergency response system in the county during times of major hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather-related disasters.”

In the meantime, Seaberg said he would be looking into possible arrangements with Onslow County. He said he would follow up by scheduling a meeting with Norman Bryson, Onslow County Emergency Services director.

“I have it on my schedule to get with Norman,” Seaberg said in a telephone interview. Seaberg said he has lots of questions. “What is available for the town of Swansboro during events? What is possible? The devil is in the details.”

Onslow County, which manages fire and rescue in the unincorporated areas of the county, faces some of the same issues Swansboro faces when it comes to being storm-prepared, according to Bryson.

In a telephone interview he said Onslow County EOC command center is in the Emergency Services building on Commons Drive in Jacksonville. However, each fire department and EMS station essentially remains operational, if possible.

Bryson said Bear Creek Fire Department, for example, moves from its location on Bear Creek Road – a building built in the mid-1970s – to Sand Ridge Elementary School.

The vehicles are outside, parked outside but where they are least likely to suffer damage.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

For more on this story, purchase a copy of the Jan. 20, 2021, Tideland News.

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