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First look at East Lyme public safety building

East Lyme — From a public entrance with its window into a state-of-the-art dispatch center to a secure area for prisoners and evidence, the public safety building is ready to deliver new levels of efficiency and professionalism to some of the town's emergency services.

The $7.4 million hub for police, dispatch, emergency operations and the fire marshal's office was first approved in early 2019, when then-First Selectman Mark Nickerson described the new independent police force's working conditions as "deplorable."

"We won't get another deal like this again," Nickerson said at the time, back when the renovation of the 30,000-square-foot West Main Street office building was being pitched for between $5 million and $6 million. "It's time to come up with a professional building project that will allow us to be efficient, and to live up to professional standards which are required for policing these days."

This week, a tour of the nearly complete two-story building showed what more than three years of public meetings, negotiations, votes, politics and multiple committees can accomplish.

Police Chief Mike Finkelstein touted the facility as one "built for flow" and efficiency.

"It's a much more professional environment," he said. "It's much more conducive to police work, to serving the community."

The public police department entry opens to a lobby with a dispatch window to the side, records department to the front and stairs going up to the fire marshal's office and emergency operations center.

The entry also includes an interview room and fingerprinting area, so the department can accommodate most people's needs without having to go any deeper into the secure facility.

"Theoretically, 95% of the people will never have to go into the building," Finkelstein said.

The rest of the first floor is accessible only by keycard swipe. Officers enter from the back entrance to start or end their shift with routine functions like getting changed in the locker room, attending roll call and writing reports.

In the dispatch center, staff members currently working out of the communications center on Boston Post Road will turn into the public face of the new building when they make their official move. It's scheduled for Jan. 19, according to the chief.

"They are front and center for meeting the public," Finkelstein said. "The public comes in, speaks to the dispatcher, asks for whatever they need."

That means the administrative assistants who sit behind the glass in the current police station won't be responsible for answering the door or the phone anymore. Finkelstein said roles may be adjusted so the two staff members — one full-time and one part-time — can use the extra time to help the department better deal with reporting requirements and Freedom of Information Act requests.

Dispatchers also have all new equipment in their new space, the chief said. That includes the 911 system, radio system and monitors for the security cameras placed inside and around the building.

"You're not working in a facility where things have been mismatched and thrown together," Finkelstein said. "Everything is planned rather than just acquired."

The department currently leases a building on Main Street that has been criticized not only as thrown together, but as inadequate, too small and leaky. It lacks its own space for prisoners and evidence, with the town instead paying Waterford $47,000 per year to use its jail facilities.

In the public safety building, a loading dock was turned into the sally port through which officers drive in with prisoners for direct transport to the holding area on the other side of the door.

Officials chose to include three jail cells in the new layout based on historical data for how many people are arrested and how many are held, Finkelstein said. "Ninety percent of prisoners don't make it to the cell because they're processed, everything's done and then they are bonded out and released," he said. "They don't have to go into a cell."

The spacing, with one cell separated from the others, addresses state requirements that males and females cannot be allowed to see or hear each other.

"Same thing with juveniles, if you were to have a juvenile for holding — which is almost nonexistent," Finkelstein said. State law dictates juveniles cannot be held for more than six hours.

Officers are slated to move in by the end of the month, he said. The facility will be authorized to hold prisoners after that.

The building includes space for receiving evidence and storing it, along with a large impound area outside the door.

Upstairs

On the second floor, which is cut off from the lower police facility through the keycard system, space is shared by the emergency operations center, fire marshal's office and the IT room.

The IT room was a source of concern in the latter half of last year, when leaks prompted the appropriation of an additional $200,000, to be covered by federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds, to replace the roof. But members of the Town Building Committee overseeing the project said supply chain issues stalled the work.

The communications room holds about $200,000 worth of new equipment, according to officials.

The building committee in September allocated $11,679 for a drain pan and gutter system to act as a temporary barrier against precipitation, so staff could move in prior to the roof replacement. Officials at the time were thinking the move would happen in late November or early December.

The full roof replacement started last week and is ongoing.

Finkelstein said the temporary fix was successful. "Basically we've had no water since they put that pan system in," he said.

The emergency operations center currently housed on the second floor of the communications building on Boston Post Road will double as a training room, with four large screens, a desktop control system and laptops. The room is used for emergencies and drills, including large storms and simulated radiation leaks at the Millstone Power Station in Waterford.

In the fire marshal's office, Fire Marshal John Way and two deputies already have made the transition from Boston Post Road. Way said bigger computer screens and more table space make reviewing planning and construction documents more efficient.

"A lot of times we'll communicate kind of like college kids cramming for an exam," he said. "One person on the computer, the other going through the code book, rattling it off."

Local fire marshals are responsible for enforcing the state's voluminous fire codes, inspecting buildings and investigating the cause and origin of fires, among other responsibilities.

Also included on the second floor is a large, unallocated room and other spaces designated for future use.

First Selectman Kevin Seery said it's too early to determine how the space will be filled. He said that decision would likely be made after all the scheduled moves are completed and the new inhabitants settle in.

Seery, who was deputy first selectman previously, said it's exciting to know the building soon will be occupied after so much planning.

"The police are finally getting a home that's not only good for them, but good for the public as well," he said.

e.regan@theday.com

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