Now that the spring thaw has occurred, earthwork has begun at Lebanon County’s new $30 million 911 Center, slated to open in the summer of 2023.

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When asked about the project’s timeline, Lebanon County Emergency Management Services Director Bob Dowd preferred to present a broad overview given the potential for unforeseen delays and to protect security sensitivities surrounding a job of this nature. 

“The foundation is projected to be completed by this summer, the framework should be set by fall, it will be under roof by winter, and ready to open by the summer of 2023,” said Dowd of the new center, which will be located in the 1800 block of Cornwall Road in North Cornwall Township.

The center’s official opening date could be pushed back if two uncontrollable factors have their way: inclement weather and issues caused by the ongoing disruption to the supply chain, according to Dowd and chief clerk/county administrator Jamie Woglemuth.

“Ground broke in December,” said Wolgemuth. “The official notice to proceed that the county issued was Dec. 13, which is when they started to drop off equipment. So you can call that the official project start date. But they’ll (the contractors) inevitably have to do some shifting due to material and supply chain issues, which is something that is discussed at every (contractor) meeting.”

While the frozen ground and winter weather delayed work over the past several months, contractors have now started to dig their claws into the project by moving huge swaths of earth to flatten areas of the triangle-shaped,10-acre site.

“The ground has been frozen, which has made it impossible to cut and fill,” said Dowd. “The main thing that has to happen on this site before we can do the foundation is that they have to bring down the high side, which I believe is as much as six feet that they’re moving, and the low side has to be brought up. There’s just a lot of earth that has to be moved and a ton of rock – it’s all rock underneath.”

Although the weather is always a wild card when it comes to outdoor construction, it has been fairly cooperative so far, according to Wolgemuth.

“If you recall, the weather pattern in December was pretty nice, which is another reason they were eager (to start)” said Wolgemuth. “They did get into the ground for a few weeks, got some stuff moved around, and then it froze, so they had to slow up. They also did some blasting in December in the meantime.” 

There were other factors driving the desire to launch the project as soon as it was given a green light by County Commissioners – including uncertainties connected to the cost of doing business.

“Contractors were anxious to get moving given the volatility in the market,” said Dowd. “They did this project on current pricing and they want to make sure they deliver on that, and we did not want to stand in their way.”

Efforts to contain potential massive cost swings for this particular project are the responsibility of the contractor, Wolgemuth noted.   

“Of course it gives us pause because, whether inside or outside of government, costs affect all of us,” he said. “But in this particular project, we were very clear and very careful with the bidders that cost fluctuations are something they are going to have to account for. We know there are unknowns in many cases, but we won’t be surcharged for an upward cost in steel or concrete.”

Although change orders are part of any construction project, especially with one of this magnitude, there will not be “millions of dollars in unexpected expenses” during this job, added Wolgemuth.

“We borrowed a defined amount of money, we budgeted a defined amount of money, and we aren’t in a position to be able to pay millions of dollars at the back end,” he said. “That was covered in the bid process.”

Dowd said that’s why county officials did not want to interfere with the launch date so contractors could take advantage of current pricing.

“They wanted to get things ordered and take advantage of current pricing and get it locked in so they could honor the bid they gave to us,” said Dowd. “The bigger concern is not price fluctuation, it’s the timetable. If there is something that is out of their control, the actual delivery of supplies, as we all know, is challenging right now. You never really know what’s going to be next on the difficult-to-get list.”

While the supply chain continues to be unsettled, there is comfort in knowing that the county’s due diligence and pre-planning is paying off financially.  

“I think it is worth noting that when we started this project, we put together a cost estimate and we’ve stuck close to that figure – and that was pre-pandemic,” said Dowd. “We had original cost estimates before the economy took a hit, but we’ve been able to stay very, very close to that number.”

Wolgemuth noted that the final price tag on the bid that was awarded 11 months after bids were requested was $70,000 less than the county’s projected cost of $30 million, which Dowd said “speaks volumes to the amount of planning that went into the project.”

“The amount of time that went into the planning for this project was so massive,” said Dowd. “That I don’t know that I can even justifiably quantify it for you.”

Wolgemuth said concerns have been expressed to the commissioners about the price tag for an initiative that’s been referenced at past meetings of the county commissioners as “the most expensive project in the history of Lebanon County government.”

Dowd added that numerous required redundancies, that are necessary to ensure the continuing functionality of the 911 Center in times of emergency, are major cost drivers. He gave the example of the need for two air conditioning units in case one suddenly stopped working in the midst of a heatwave. 

“The biggest construction projects by cost are hospitals, prisons and 911 centers because all three require certain levels of redundancy to ensure the people’s health and public safety,” said Dowd.  

Dowd said that while people always equate his department with 911 services, there’s more to EMS than just answering and responding to emergency calls. Other vital public safety services provided by his department will also be housed at that location, he added. 

The new site will have a firehouse-type building to store emergency response vehicles, hazmat equipment and related resources and an 8,000-square-foot warehouse to store PPE and other EMS supplies.

There will also be a state-of-the-art training facility, which Dowd noted at earlier public meetings will hopefully not only train local first responders but also non-Lebanon County emergency personnel.  

“This is not just a 911 Center,” said Dowd. “When people look at this they say, ‘something else must be going in there,’ and the answer is, ‘yes, you’re right.’ This is training facilities for public safety. This is continuity of government location in case something were to happen to the courthouse. … This is the location to store supplies for a pandemic or natural disasters, so it has a warehouse component to it as well. This site encompasses a lot – and that’s something that needs to be front and center.” 

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...