McLennan County to replace jail fire alarms after malfunctions

Fire alarms at the Jack Harwell Detention Center on Marlin Highway have become unreliable, prompting McLennan County commissioners Tuesday to approve installing a new system at the jail.

Waco attorney Michael Dixon, who provides legal counsel to the county, urged commissioners to take action, calling the situation an emergency.

Though not an urgent matter, commissioners Tuesday addressed another jail-related issue. They chose John W. Erwin General Contractor as construction manager at risk for converting the old county jail downtown into courtrooms, jury rooms and office space. County officials estimate the 16-month construction project will cost between $30 million and $40 million. McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said talks between John W. Erwin and jail architect Brinkley Sargent Wiginton will produce a more definitive figure to be called a “not-to-exceed” estimate.

The downtown jail on Columbus Avenue, immediately behind the McLennan County Courthouse at 501 Washington Ave., closed in 2010. Space in the 121-year-old courthouse and its annex has been at a premium for years, and the state Legislature recently authorized a new state district court and a county court at law for McLennan County, adding to the crunch.

The jail conversion will give the county another 46,200 square feet to work with. Felton has said the conversion will be more economical than building a new facility off-site, especially considering the long-term costs of providing security at separate facilities.

Mazanec Construction and John W. Erwin competed for the work.

“Both companies made very impressive presentations,” Felton said. “The great thing is we had two locals competing against each other.”

He said John W. Erwin may have benefited from serving as construction manager at risk when the county built its $32 million Base multipurpose center on Bosque Boulevard. The facility opened in early 2021, and the project came in under budget and ahead of schedule.

The county will spend $9.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to meet the financial demands of the downtown jail conversion. The county received about $49 million in the federal COVID-19-related economic relief measure.

Commissioners also agreed to spend $255,000 in American Rescue Plan money to cover the cost of installing a new fire detection system at the Jack Harwell jail.

Felton did not downplay installing a new fire detection system, but said “if it were in my house, I’d wait until I had a problem. We have 1,300 guests, not counting employees, so there is a higher level of urgency.”

County facilities director TJ Jackson said the system dates to the building’s construction, and is showing its age. The county opened the facility in 2010.

“We’re seeing some failures in the detectors, have gone in the past couple of years and replaced that stuff,” Jackson said. “Lately it has become more of a software problem. We’ve had a series of trouble alarms, and we had to call someone out, specialized folks from Austin who are able to work on this equipment. That led us down the path to full replacement.”

He said with a purchase order in hand, he hopes within two weeks to have a local contractor install new smoke detectors and control panels.

Jackson said he is not aware of any occasion when the system failed to detect smoke or caused emergency vehicles to needlessly respond.

The county built the Harwell jail using bond proceeds and opened it in 2010 as an overflow facility for the McLennan County Jail next door. They are connected by a shared kitchen. From its opening, the county hired for-profit companies to run Harwell, while the sheriff’s office operated the McLennan County Jail.

The sheriff’s office took over operations at
Harwell in October 2019.

Also Tuesday, commissioners voted to allocate $430,448 in American Rescue Plan money on a thermal camera system the sheriff’s office requested.

“It expands our ability to provide public safety, an effective tool that takes technology another step,” Felton said. “It will be used from a helicopter to identify things on the ground, something very helpful in searching for escapees or missing persons. It provides very clear definition. The difference between cows, horses, pigs and people is obvious.”



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