Inside Homer public safety: Inadequate facilities raise questions of security, health

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune
A Homer police dispatcher’s stressful job gets even more so when there isn’t much space in a muggy, poorly ventilated room.
There is no “time out” space where traumatized dispatchers catch their breath. Not even a separate lunchroom. And there’s no sound barrier between police offices and the jail. If you’ve got a yelling prisoner, it’s heard throughout the building.
That’s just a few examples of the crowded conditions at the Homer Police Station. After many years of crowding, the City of Homer is pushing forth plans for seeking legislative help to fund a $15 million facility that would house the fire department and police station under one roof. The weeks ahead will involve discussion on location, costs, design and strategy for gaining legislative attention.

HOMER TRIBUNE/Jane M. Pascall -  The long hall of jail cells.

HOMER TRIBUNE/Jane M. Pascall -
The long hall of jail cells.

The problem has become critical, city officials say.
Today, one of the jail’s four cells houses a belligerent  inmate. “I’m going to scream all day. I’m going to bring a lawsuit against you – I’m going to …”
During a tour, given by Police Chief Mark Robl Friday, the man’s rants are heard all the way to the second floor where a police sergeant is trying to work through a homicide case. The dispatcher, two offices away from the jail, is trying to sort through a caller’s needs. Anyone on duty gets treated to the man’s wrath, yelled out every few minutes.
The prisoner switches to profanities and names the chief specifically.
“It happens about once a week we get one of these,” Robl says. “He’s in here for violating a restraining order. You kind of shut it out after a while.”
A jail inside a police station that functions properly would hold stout walls for sound barriers. It would let the officers get their work done in a professional environment.
This lower level of the 5,000-foot station is a rabbit’s warren of small rooms connected via narrow halls. One acts as storage, though “storage” is parked anywhere there’s a blank floor spot. “You’ll see a lot of stuff in these rooms because we don’t have any place to to put it,” he says.
A large video surveillance camera still in its box is one such specimen.
“We’re going to be switching out, upgrading, our video surveillance system, but there isn’t much space to do that,” he said. Currently a smaller screen shows what’s happening in the cells, on the street out-front, and other critical areas. Jail officer Rick Pitta sits at a desk where this video equipment provides his watch. Before him is the paperwork. To his elbow is the “kitchen,” an area of counter-space and cupboards, a stove and sink. But no table for a real lunch room. Only another desk.
The intake room to the back, where prisoners are brought in, fingerprinted, breathalized and searched is another small room. A bench isn’t large enough for more than one person to be held handcuffed and processed. Proximity to the intake officer makes it unsafe, Robl said.
The man in a cell who’s been yelling starts his rant back up, heard clearly from the intake room.
“It is not a good environment for what it (the processing room) does,” Robl said. “It’s too small and not safely designed for officers who have to deal with certain prisoners.”
Back at dispatch, the 911 room, a single dispatcher is working a case.  A muggy room poorly ventilated, two desks heavily stacked with equipment. Ideally, there would be two dispatchers on duty at once, or even three. But it’s hard to attract and retain dispatchers who must work in these conditions as well as the stress of their tasks.
“That’s our number one funding request priority,”Robl said. “We aren’t fully staffed for dispatchers – we need one more.”
Not fully ventilated air throughout the building poses a potential health hazard. Robl’s concerned about airborne pathogens circulating throughout the building. Officers get health checks and inoculations to help them stay healthy.
“Over 50 percent of all prisoners nationwide, and here too, have serious health problems – TB (tuberculosis), hepatitis, viruses. The air prisoners breathe goes throughout the building,” Robl said.
It’s also a problem for technological equipment that grew increasingly more complex since the building was constructed in the late 1970s.
“There’s no air conditioning or temperature control, which means a shorter life span for equipment, for (example) the electronics bank for the radio system. It’s always too warm. It’s a very dusty place, not a clean room. The building was built before computers were even thought of,” Robl said. He stood before an area the size of a bathroom where towering steel frames enclose colored wires.
The station is made vulnerable by inadequate entrances and exits for visitors and prisoners. The visitors’ rooms, also on this floor, sit back in a hallway where the visitor must pass into the more private space of the police station: past dispatch office, past the radio equipment room, past the storage rooms.
“Not a real secure situation,” Robl said.
A phone on the wall and a window to the prisoner in a short foot space also doubles as the place to put offending juveniles at night. They sleep on a floor mat. The facility isn’t set up for underage prisoners under most conditions, though there are times – when kept separate from adult prisoners – that a jail cell can be used for youth.
The other side of an insecure situation around visitors is that the prisoner is going to enter the station’s work space. He will be escorted through the room where Pitta does his surveillance work and into another area before being secured in a room on the other side of the visitor’s window.
Policies were devised to keep the building secure, but every now and then a prisoner tries to bolt when being brought to his visitor.
This isn’t the first time Robl has asked for help. He asked for legislative funding through the City of Homer’s Capital Improvement Project listing four or five years in a row when he took over in 1999.
“It was there for those years on the CIP list and it didn’t get any traction, so we took it off the list,” Robl said. “Now finally, we’re getting put back on.”
Upstairs is scarcely better. Robl’s office and that of the higher ranking officers aren’t much bigger than the bathrooms on the Homer Spit, yet must also store police equipment among the desk, chairs and logs. Though the full police and staff count reaches 24 individuals, a conference room wouldn’t squeeze more than a dozen at a time for training or meetings. A locker room-workout room doesn’t account for co-ed sharing.
In the late 1970s, when the police station was designed and built, Homer’s population counted at about 1,000 people. The entire Kenai Peninsula Borough population stood at 14,250 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Today, it has grown to 56,900 on the Peninsula. Homer’s core area lists 5,239 people now – 4,000 more people than when the police station as built. The four cells at the Homer Jail accommodate all the prisoners brought in by the Alaska State Troopers from Nanwalek to Ninilchik and every place in between.
The number of prisoners handled at the jail in 2013 between January and August is way up. Already, it is more than what were processed in the whole of 2012, Robl said.
The Homer Volunteer Fire Department building is likewise overcrowded. It consisted of a gas station that was added onto in 1980. The original bay holds one of the largest fire engine used by the department. Chief Bob Painter notes the door is 11 feet while the fire truck is over ten feet. Among the problems Painter points out is a room critical for refilling the fire fighting apparatus worn to protect breathing.
“The room has too much other stuff in it. It’s not isolated. It’s not ideal for the maintenance of our self contained breathing apparatus,” Painter said. “That’s also where we do our fitness testing for our personal to wear the mask or respirator and it’s not adequate along with other storage and equipment stored there because of space demands. It should be in a more secure room.”
To solve both the police and fire departments’ needs at the same time, the plan is to house them in a new 29,000-foot facility. The City of Homer economic development coordinator, Katie Koester, is overseeing the plan. She said the city council’s Monday Work session will focus on looking at the pros and cons of two different site options. Both land areas are owned by the city – one in the town center area between Klondike and Hazel Streets. The other proposal puts it where the present Homer Educational Recreational Center is located, on the Sterling Bypass.
“No decision will be made at the work session. This is just to present the council with more information,” Koester said. Professional input will be needed before a final decision is made on the site of the new public safety building. But at Monday night’s council meeting, the council may see an ordinance introduced, that if passed after public testimony, would let the city administration proceed in an allocation for feasibility and design work.
For Robl and Painter, it will spell relief to get a plan started, but they will need patience.
A building won’t be in the construction stage for a few more years.

Contact the writer
Posted by on Sep 3rd, 2013 and filed under Headline News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Response for “Inside Homer public safety: Inadequate facilities raise questions of security, health”

  1. Bill says:

    Great – I can see now that we are going to be asked to pass a bond to buy and new police station and a new fire station. This article is the opening volley in a series of stories to try to impress upon the public the desperate need to have new building al of a sudden. Oh well, I like throwing my money away to needless projects right after I stop throwing money in a burning barrel.

Comments are closed

Like us on Facebook