‘Safe rooms’ planned to protect those working during major disasters

Washington County emergency officials will soon have safe rooms to enter when major disasters come to call. 

The rooms will be constructed according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards, which the agency’s website says would “provide near-absolute protection in extreme wind events, including tornadoes and hurricanes.”

Officials say the rooms will provide safety to those whose jobs require working in the hazardous conditions that come with major disasters. It is common for emergency responders and others in emergency management roles to remain in harm’s way as they work to keep the community safe and informed.

County Administrator Jeff Massey says the need to have a safe location for those working through a disaster became especially apparent during Hurricane Michael.

“During Michael, we had folks in structures that probably weren’t the safest in the world for the kinds of winds we experienced,” he said. “Those are the very people we are dependent on so when they can get out, they can respond; we need to ensure their safety.”

FEMA awarded $8 million in hazard mitigation funds to Washington County after Michael, funds which are earmarked for safety upgrades within the county. 

“When FEMA disburses those funds, there are areas that we are required to spend them on,” said Massey. “We upgrade things such as generators, pumps and facilities so that when the next disaster hits, we are better prepared.”

The county used a portion of those funds to purchase generators for the county health department, sheriff’s office and another that is strong enough to power the entire county annex building.

Around $800,000 of those funds are slated to build safe rooms at three key locations in the county: the Emergency Operations Center in Wausau, and at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County EMS in Chipley. Each safe room will be approximately 800 square feet, come equipped with restroom facilities and have the ability to withstand 200 mph winds.  

The structures will cost approximately $220,000 each and will be completed in two phases.

Currently, the projects are in phase one, which includes engineering and design by bid winner, Melvin Engineering. Phase two – the construction portion – which will go out for bid once phase one is complete.

“We are well into phase one of this project,” said Massey. “Once we know who will be building the rooms, we can get started. We are really trying to expedite this process because of the need. Understanding the need for these safe rooms that will protect staff during these events is priority. We are moving it along as fast as we can.”

Massey says the goal is to have the rooms built before the next major disaster hits.