Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
In 2016, two different engineers warned Southwestern Community College that its current burn building facility needed to be replaced within 12 to 18 months due to structural deficiencies. The current burn building was built in 1990 and serves fire departments from across Western North Carolina. Due to nearly three decades of use, SCC has requested Macon County Commissioners help fund the cost to relocate and replace the facility.
Macon County Commissioners voted to approve up to $1.3 million in the next fiscal year to be used as matching funds for the project.
Emergency personnel from around Western North Carolina travel to Macon County to undergo training at Southwestern Community College Public Safety Department’s burn building. The state-mandated training requirements help fire departments and emergency personnel in the region prepare for different scenarios they may face.
“We’re extremely grateful to the Macon County Fire Commission for crafting a letter of support for this project,” said Curtis Dowdle, dean of public safety training at SCC. “Fire chiefs and volunteer firefighters representing fire departments across the county filled up several rows of seats during the county commissioners’ meeting. These are the same people who receive training from us, and their presence at the meeting demonstrates just how valuable this Fire/Rescue Training Facility will be for every resident of our county. If my house or yours were to be under threat of fire damage, we would absolutely want the people who respond to have received the best possible training in a top-quality facility.”
When SCC was informed in September 2016 that the burn facility had a limited lifespan, SCC began reducing the amount of training and use of the building while SCC and Macon County explored the option of building a new facility.
“Based on each engineer’s recommendations, the use of live fire training has been limited to training rooms they identified as being safe – as well as use of temporary metal containers to take the burn load away from the current structure,” said Tyler Goode, Director of Public Relations for SCC. “Firefighters are also required to have a certain number of hours each year at a training facility. Failure to achieve these hours could result in a higher ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating for the department, thereby adversely impacting homeowner’s insurance rates. Use has been limited to only required scenarios mandated by N.C. Office of State Fire Marshal.”
The projected cost of the project is approximately $2.7 million. The SCC Board of Trustees approved the use of $1.4 million of “Connect NC” Bond money from the state for this project. Macon County Commissioners approved $1.3 million last week to go toward construction costs. Previously Macon County transferred six acres of land adjacent to SCC’s Cecil Groves Center and the Macon County Library in Franklin for the project. The value of the land transfer is credited by the state toward the matching requirement for the use of the NC Connect Bond money and any future state funds that might require matching funds from the county.
SCC is required to follow the N.C. Community College System and State Construction rules and guidelines, which will require hiring a designer to do detailed work on the site plan that will be made public once it is more fully developed.
“As proposed to the county commissioners, SCC envisions installing a four-story pre-fabricated fire rescue training tower including class A and B burn capability to provide the most realistic public safety/firefighter training environment while simultaneously maximizing safety of both instructors and trainees,” Goode said of the use of the six acres. “The property will also have an approximately 2,500-square-foot pre-engineered metal building that will house a classroom and fire station where training aids, a fire truck and equipment can be stored.”
The current burn building property adjacent to the SCC Public Safety Training Center and the N.C. National Guard Armory is leased by SCC from Macon County. Once the new facility is built, SCC will remove its equipment from the current facility and the property will revert to the county for future disposition.
“The next step is to provide the project proposal including the approved funding sources to the N.C. Community Colleges State Board for approval,” said Goode. “Once approved, SCC will advertise for proposals seeking a designer to begin the detailed planning process.”
Macon County Commissioners debated funding the burn building based on the fact that Macon County taxpayers will be footing the bill for the project, even though the majority of the time, the building is used by agencies and residents outside of Macon County. While Macon County is now responsible for $1.3 million to build the facility, state statute prohibits the county or SCC from charging fire departments for using the facility for training. Macon County Commissioner Paul Higdon noted that the NC Connect Bond requires the county to provide a three-to-one match for funding for SCC to use the funds. He questioned why Macon County was essentially matching the project one-to-one. SCC President Don Tomas said that since the discussion of the new burn building first started, the plans and overall costs have changed and increased and for the project to be done and with SCC not using any available funds aside from the bond money, SCC would need more money from the county to build the facility SCC is requesting.