'We're going to change lives': Walton Works Public Safety Complex opens in DeFuniak Springs

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — An almost four-year project came to fruition Thursday as numerous community leaders celebrated the completion of the Walton Works Public Safety Complex with a ribbon cutting. 

The complex, located at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office in DeFuniak Springs, is comprised of a fire tower and a driving pad to be used jointly by Northwest Florida State College and the WCSO. 

The complex is an addition to the Walton Works Training Center of Excellence, which was completed earlier this year and is designed to help expand public safety training in Walton County. 

“This is an opportunity to create the best and brightest here, and if you want the best and brightest you have to have control over it,” said Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson. “You need to have a hand in the way they’re being trained for the future.”

Adkinson said he and Dr. Devin Stephenson, president of NWF State, had a shared vision that brought the project to life. They sat down to discuss the possibilities, and after their first meeting the project continued to grow. 

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Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson and Northwest Florida State College President Dr. Devin Stephenson cut a ribbon Thursday to mark the completion of the Walton Works Public Safety Complex in DeFuniak Springs. The complex consists of a four-story fire training tower and an asphalt driving pad to be used jointly by Northwest Florida State College and the Walton County Sheriff's Office for public safety training.

“There are a lot of people who worked on this really long and hard, I just kind of drove it a little bit,” Adkinson said. “Dr. Stephenson was willing to be part of that and adding his vision to it was really big.”

NWF State offers several workforce-ready programs, including law enforcement and fire academies, emergency medical technician and paramedic courses, and others. 

“We have one of the top public safety programs in the state, and we are excited about expanding that training into Walton County,” Stephenson said. “Our certification pass rates across the board exceed the state averages and reflect the exemplary work of our faculty, who are preparing students for real world experiences.”

Stephenson and Adkinson were joined by college trustees, WCSO personnel and community leaders to mark the occasion. 

Lt. Kelby Willcox with Walton County Fire and Rescue maneuvers the bucket of a ladder truck up to the fourth floor of a new fire training tower in DeFuniak Springs. The training tower and an adjacent asphalt driving pad are part of the new Walton Works Public Safety Complex.

Training facilities like this 'a must'

Walton County Commission Vice Chairman Michael Barker expressed his pride for the new facility at the ceremony, and remarked that it is a vast improvement over the resources available when he went through the basic law enforcement academy. 

“This is just the start of what we’re going to have here in Walton County,” Barker said. “Training facilities like this in today’s day and time with the things that we’re going through, this is something that is a must. We need to provide every bit of training that we can to these folks for their safety, as well.”

The four-story fire tower will provide training for firefighters in a controlled environment, and several special features on the tower will make it possible to replicate actual conditions they could face on the job. 

Lt. Kelby Willcox with Walton County Fire and Rescue, left, hands a safety harness to Battalion Chief Christopher Brown, who is standing on the fourth floor of a new fire training tower in DeFuniak Springs. The training tower and an adjacent asphalt driving pad are part of the new Walton Works Public Safety Complex.

The second floor incorporates a heavily insulated burn room where firefighters can experience the intense heat of a real structure fire. Heavy-duty anchors at the top of the tower also can be used to simulate rope-based rescues. 

Some of those features like the burn room were not available at the original fire tower on the college’s Niceville campus, Stephenson said. 

The facility will be accessible to agencies across the Panhandle, and Adkinson said he hopes to have agencies from as far as Alabama train there. 

“Sheriff Adkinson and I have a dream of making this the No. 1 public safety institute in the state of Florida, and we are going to do that,” Stephenson said. 

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Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson speaks during Thursday's ribbon cutting for the Walton Works Public Safety Complex in DeFuniak Springs. The complex consists of a four-story fire training tower and an asphalt driving pad to be used jointly by Northwest Florida State College and the Walton County Sheriff's Office.

Walton Works complex will have many dual purposes

For a facility like that to make sense, Adkinson said it needs to be in use all of the time, and will have many dual purposes.

County employees and schools will be able to use the driving pad to hold driver education courses. Adkinson also plans to use the complex to increase job opportunities for inmates at the county jail with a commercial driver's license course and more. 

“Training capable, competent, professional individuals by a high standard, and at the same time lending a hand and opportunity to people at the lowest end of the socio-economic strata is fundamentally the right thing to do, and I believe that in my heart,” Adkinson said. 

Cones are set up on a new asphalt driving pad at the Walton Works Public Safety Complex in DeFuniak Springs.

The facility was financed by the commitment of $1.5 million of Walton County RESTORE Act funds unanimously approved by Walton County commissioners, and an additional $2.7 million from Triumph Gulf Coast. 

Stephenson said he believes the investment in public safety training also is an investment into the economy and lives of residents. 

“Public safety officers are going to be provided with the skills needed to earn a family- sustainable wage, and employers will look to grow and expand their business in a safer community,” Stephenson said. 

The project doesn’t end there, however. Adkinson said he sees it as a 20- to 40-year project, and hopes to one day add a training building and dormitory on the property. 

“That’s what we’re striving to do here is to build a legacy that exceeds one man, one woman, one organization,” Adkinson said. “We’re going to change lives. I mean that and I believe that from the bottom of my heart.”