Sheriff’s Office, county Fire Rescue move toward launching a joint training facility, but much still depends on voters

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Posted August 3, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office recently moved closer to having its own one-stop training facility with a gun range and driving course.

But bringing it to fruition still may hinge on voters green-lighting the renewal of a local 1-cent sales tax in November.

In July, the County Commission unanimously approved a special-use zoning permit that would allow the Sheriff’s Office to set up a gun range on the grounds of the Martel Recycling Center, at 296 S.W. 67th Ave. Rd.

The Sheriff’s Office’s plan calls for putting the gun range in the southwest corner of the 132-acre site, according to county documents. The northwest quadrant would contain an asphalt driving “pad.”

The facility would be dual use, however.

Marion County Fire Rescue also could use the site to train drivers for emergency vehicles and a section would be dedicated for firefighters to practice on structure blazes.

Sheriff Billy Woods added the facility to his wish list of projects to be funded by the sales tax, which voters first adopted in 2016 but is set to expire at the end of the year. Those plans show the $1.6 million range would be built in 2021.

Voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether to renew the tax.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Paul Bloom said if the tax is not approved for a second go-round deputies could still conduct firearms qualification at Lowell Correctional Institution, where the state operates a gun range.

But that option is restricted somewhat by having to coordinate with the state for using its facility.

As for driver training, Bloom explained that the Sheriff’s Office now uses Ocala Regional Sportsplex, when necessary. Prior to that, the Sheriff’s Office conducted that at the Dunnellon-Marion County Airport.

The driving pad is expected to cost $2.2 million and would be built in 2022, according to the proposed project list for the sales tax.

“This has been a long-held desire for us. Ideally, a training site set up just for local law enforcement would help provide even more training and remove the limited time slots and availability that we currently work around,” Bloom said in an email.

“Driving, firearms and first-aid are considered by the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) to be ‘high liability’ skills that must be continually trained on and re-certified annually. Our trainers attempt to provide the most realistic training scenarios as they can. We find that we are sometimes limited as to what we can do in Lowell as other agencies, law enforcement academy students and Marion Correctional (Institution) officers are using the site simultaneously.”

With 800 employees at the Sheriff’s Office, and 300 more at the Ocala Police Department, which also would have access to the proposed range, “just having the extra breathing room is essential. I guess a good analogy would be needing to buy a three- bedroom, two-bath home because your family has outgrown the one-bedroom, one-bath apartment.”

Fire Rescue spokesman James Lucas said the driving pad would help new firefighters to learn how to maneuver those vehicles, as well as those who need refresher training.

The paved area would also improve firefighters’ skill at extracting trapped drivers.

For one thing, county firefighters would no longer need to travel to local junkyards to find cars to work on rescuing drivers, and the paved surface at the Martel campus would be more realistic than the gravel area at the department’s operations center, since most accidents occur on asphalt, Lucas said.   

Meanwhile, firefighters also could move live-fire training exercises away from the operations center, said Lucas.

And a joint facility, he added, could help improve collaboration between firefighters and law enforcement.

The current sales tax passed with 55 percent of the vote in 2016. An estimated 30 percent of its proceeds are generated by visitors to Marion County.

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