Public safety training facility plan becomes a reality
By Matthew Stolle
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
If ever there was a project that had a political tailwind this legislative session, it was a proposal to fund a multi-million-dollar public safety training center in Rochester.
The city of Rochester had made it one of its top priorities. Both the DFL-led House and Senate supported the project. So did Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But area supporters had learned too many hard lessons about the precarious nature of the legislative process to be overly confident.
For nearly a decade, Rochester-area legislators had pushed the notion of building a regional training center for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the Legislature, only to see it thwarted.
So when a $925 million public works bill finally reached the governor’s desk with $3.65 million in bonding money for the project, no one was declaring victory prematurely.
"We had our fingers crossed right up to the end," said Capt. Mark Erickson of the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department.
Now with the legislation signed, area law enforcement officials have begun shifting their focus to the project’s next phase of planning and building the center.
Supporters describe a center that will be made up of four parts: a burn tower for firefighters, a weapons range, a driving facility and a K-9 training area for law enforcement officers. Classrooms and office space will also be part of the mix.
"The key thing is, it’s a southeastern Minnesota regional training center. It’s going to benefit all of our communities around here," said Dave Perkins, chairman of the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners.
In addition to the $3.65 million provided by the state, the county is ponying up $3.25 million toward the center.
Perkins said the county has already contributed some of that money by buying the land, an 84-acre parcel in south Rochester east of Fleet Farm. Although the county owns the land, Elcor Construction has rights to work a quarry that sits on the land until 2010.
Perkins indicated that the quarry shouldn’t interfere with the development of the training facility.
"We’ll probably end up using that quarry for part of the training, like a shooting range and things like that. However they design it, the quarry will kind of fit in there a little bit," Perkins said.
Erickson said he was unable to say when the center would be completed. Perkins estimated that construction would start in early spring of 2009, with different parts of the center being added on through the year.
Erickson, a 23-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, was recently named project manager of the center. He said the training center is currently at the conceptual stage, but expects architects to come up with plans within six to eight months of being presented with a description of the center.
Once finished, the training center will bring benefits in terms of more effective training and greater safety, Erickson said.
For example, a burn tower will mean that Rochester and rural fighters in the region will no longer have to wait and find a house in the country to burn down to hone their skills.
A burn tower is a structure made of concrete and masonry. Usually four stories in length, the tower allows for a "clean training burn" that does not destroy the building, said Rochester Deputy Chief Lyle Felsch. The training is realistic, but unlike a house burned in the countryside, there is control over the fire.
Felsch said there are recorded incidents of firefighters who were injured and even died while training in a real house burn.
"You simulate a basement fire in this training facility — that’s not putting anybody at risk. If somebody had a problem with their equipment or if they had to get out quickly, you can stop the action, and they can be taken out quickly," Felsch said.
Real training for weapons
A weapons training facility means that law enforcement officers will have the open spaces to conduct realistic training exercises.
Currently, there is no place in southeastern Minnesota specifically designed for law enforcement to train with weapons, Erickson said. So officers make do with what they can find: Shooting in quarries or practicing marksmanship at the local sportsman’s club.
Now with a weapons training area, a house can be moved in the open and law enforcement officers can train using simunition, simulated rounds that look like a bullet but leave a paint mark instead.
And a driving training facility will also be a plus, Erickson said.
"We don’t have a place that we can practice our driving skills, precision driving, or speed driving," Erickson said. "We just don’t. We have to do it in a parking lot, maybe out at the junior college or something like that. And then we risk running into light poles."
Erickson said he is in the process of putting together committees made up of members from police, fire and sheriff departments and educational institutions. Their responsibility will be to write a short description of each component of the training facility. That information will then be delivered to architects, who will flesh out those general descriptions with drawings and plans.