It could very well be one of the most interesting and unusual structures that visitors may ever have the opportunity to tour. Although a familiar campus in the city of Denton, Texas, you often hear that the Federal Regional Center – FRC still holds a lot of mystery for many in the area. On Feb. 14, 2014, the center will celebrate its 50th Anniversary.
The FRC is one of five sites constructed nationwide as locations for underground facilities prompted by the “Cold War. ” It was the first of the five to be built.
Today, the Denton facility serves as the headquarters for FEMA Region 6 which is responsible for the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
The center hosts approximately 300 Region 6 employees, with an additional 40 employed by FEMA’s Mobile Emergency Response Support or MERS which is also located on the site.
The Denton Federal Regional Center was originally designed to provide austere living and working space for 100-500 people for 30 or more days, operating entirely on commodities stored onsite. Selected personnel would come to the FRC from their normal office locations in Dallas or Fort Worth to maintain their Agency's functions should their home offices be rendered inoperable by an attack.
You must remember that the FRC was designed and built for a mid-1960s purpose and with mid-1960s technology. Much of what you will see here is now somewhat obsolete. The world situation has changed, the original threat of nuclear bombs dropped from airplanes has evaporated and the original purpose of the FRC has changed to address new emergency responses.
Obviously, the FRC was never needed to be used for its original purpose. Yet, it served with distinction as a significant part of this nation's history and continues to support the region’s emergency management mission.
Much has been added to the Federal Regional Center (FRC) property since the original construction. The two metal-framed buildings you see to the east of the original FRC house additional office space for the MERS Detachment, the National Preparedness Division and the Mitigation Division and provide garage and maintenance spaces. MERS provides 24 hour a day 365 days a year communication and security coverage, quick reaction mobile, state-of-the-art communications and data processing capabilities for Federal teams responding to any emergency. The teams provide coordination of Federal support to State and local governments and the public impacted by an emergency.
The above ground FRC building, of lightweight construction, was designed to be blown-away by a nearby nuclear explosion. It is structurally separate from the below-ground FRC areas except to serve as a reception area and the head of a stairwell and elevator shaft. Also located in the above-ground FRC area is a conference/training room, a snack bar and a supply receiving and storage area.
Probably the most visible manifestation of the significance of the FRC facility is the forest of telecommunications antennas that you see as you pass by or enter the grounds. These wire, mast and dish antennas, and the various telecommunications systems they serve, allow both FRC and MERS staff to be in contact with FEMA Headquarters, other FEMA facilities, other emergency management offices and government facilities throughout the U.S. and even around the world.
The three white cone-shaped objects located on the FRC grounds are NOT missile silos, but covers for hydraulically operated survivable antennas. If the primary antenna systems were lost due to nuclear blast effects, these back-up antennas could be raised, from the below-ground FRC communications center, to maintain minimum essential radio communications capabilities.
At the northwest and southeast comers of the underground FRC are octagonal observation and monitoring towers that could be used to observe outside activity after climbing a somewhat precarious ladder. Although similar in appearance to gun turrets, no weapons are in these towers and none are stored in the FRC. From here, FRC staff could monitor the environmental conditions outside to determine when it was safe to come out. This was necessary since a camera surveillance system was not available at this time. A mini blast door closes the bottom of each tower at ground level to protect the underground FRC.
Cold War History
In the late 1950s during the Eisenhower Administration, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) aka “The Russians,” were heavily engaged in the Cold War. Extensive stockpiles of nuclear weapons were created on both sides.
Nuclear armed bombers from both countries were often in the air, with others standing by to take to the air on short notice. Both nations had air defenses ready to shoot down any bombers from the other side.
During this era, officials in Washington D.C. realized they needed to figure out ways to ensure the survival of the United States government in the event of a nuclear war—thus, continuity of operations was born. The initiative was further supported during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s and the near-launch of nuclear weapons by the Russians in 1983.
Following a careful review of the many alternative means of providing Government operations, it was determined that the most effective response would be to construct, in locations outside the immediate likely target areas, facilities that could provide protection against nuclear blast and fallout.
These centers were intended to provide protected space for cadres of federal officials who could sustain vital governmental operations during and following a large-scale attack on the United States. The Denton FRC, the first of the regional centers to be constructed, is one such facility.
Built on 20 acres at an initial cost of $2.7 million, the Federal Regional Center (FR) consists of an above-ground reception area of approximately 4,000 square feet and two below-ground levels each boasting of 25,000 sq. ft. for a combined total of 50,000 sq. ft. underground.
The FRC was designed to withstand the blast effects of a one-megaton nuclear explosion at a distance of one mile and to protect its occupants from the nuclear fallout resulting from such a detonation.
Below ground areas were designed to provide approximately 1000 times the protection level for radioactive fallout, than outside the FRC.
Denton was selected as the site for this center due to the distance from federal offices located in Dallas and Fort Worth. An attack on those communities, their business, industrial, financial, governmental, and population centers would leave Denton relatively unharmed.
A group of Denton community leaders purchased the land on which the center is located and donated it to the U. S. Government.
This was a patriotic move that demonstrated the nation’s concerns during the Cold War between the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R.
The site selection was strongly supported by then Senate-Majority Leader from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson who visited the site in September 1959. Construction started in the early 60s and was opened for business in 1964.
The FRC originally housed FEMA predecessor agencies, which included the Office of Emergency Planning and Office of Civil Defense.
These predecessor agencies had a presence in Denton since 1954, originally located at the original Breckinridge Hall on the campus of Texas Woman’s University.
Though the facility was never used for Continuity of Government purposes, the federal government actions in creating and maintaining this facility served its purpose for National Preparedness.
The two level underground building was expected to house between 100- 500 people to conduct day-to-day peacetime operations. The shelter would be equipped with sufficient oxygen, food and bedding to accommodate staff below ground for 30 days. In the event of war, staff could be working at the Denton headquarters if it had to take over direction of non-military government activities.
Some of the features of the FRC are no longer in use, while others remain intact:
No Longer in Use:
- 13-ton blast doors over the center’s staircases are no longer functional. It is composed of lead and steel and would be closed in the case of a potential nuclear threat. It was operated by hydraulic pressure.
- An emergency escape hatch on the stairwell landing is still functioning. It was available in case the ground level building was destroyed and the blast doors were unable to open.
- A decontamination room was removed in 2009 during remodeling. When entering into the building following a nuclear incident, a potential for radioactive fallout could occur contaminating anyone entering the building. Each person entering the building would be checked with a radiological monitor and would go through the decontamination process if necessary.
- The FRC was equipped with its own power plant, which included three diesel-fueled, hand-starting 516 horsepower engines that drove three 375 kilowatt generators to supply emergency electricity to the building. In addition, two other generators were located above ground to supplement emergency lighting. Over the years, FEMA used the generators to take the building off-line of city-supplied power to supplement high electricity use during hot summers. A 30-day supply of diesel fuel was maintained at the Region, but the tanks have since been drained and filled with concrete.
- No longer in existence, the laundry room would have been used for washing the laundry of officials working or sheltering in place at the facility. Staff would be assigned laundry duty, similar to ships at sea.
- The well room houses a well that is 1,250 feet deep with a 750 gallon per minute pump to provide water to the facility. It is no longer used today. The FRC uses water supplied by the city of Denton.
Still Used Today
- The Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC) is still used today as an emergency operations center for Region 6. This is where FEMA monitors events such as hurricanes, tornadoes or severe flooding and starts the initial response to an event. In the event of a presidential disaster declaration, this would be the hub of coordinated FEMA and federal government response prior to the establishment of a Joint Field Office at or near the site of the disaster.
- An environmental control system serves as the air circulation system for the building. It mixes fresh air from the outside with the conditioned air inside the building. The air is completely changed in the building about every 86 minutes. In addition, a filtering system for both nuclear and biological air contaminants is located on the air intake.
- Now a scaled down version, the FRC kitchen would have been used to cook up to 1,500 meals a day for 200 - 500 people assigned to the FRC. Food stocks were freeze-dried and would only be used when needed in the event of an emergency. Walk-in storage freezers could be used as a temporary morgue if someone were to die in the facility.
- The center’s radio room remains a protected area. This room is shielded from EMP an intense burst of electromagnetic (EM) energy caused by an abrupt, rapid acceleration of charged particles usually electrons. The room was protected by the walls, floor and ceilings (boxed) through the use of copper plating and copper grounding rods extending down into the ground. EMP would therefore not affect this room, and emergency communications would still be possible. In the event of a nuclear bomb air burst, an EMP would be created.
- Ladders leading to observation towers are still intact but protected from use. The Observation Tower, seen as the Octagon shaped pillars on the NW and SE sides of the FRC, would be used for monitoring outdoor radioactivity as well as visual observations of the surrounding area.
- Still called the Jade Room even today, this general meeting room serves as a central location as well as the dining area for the kitchen. This room was designated as the location for men’s bunking.
- The center’s elevator is operated by a hydraulic cylinder beneath the elevator car, allowing for the movement of the elevator car between the Upper and Lower Levels. It is covered by (now non-functional) 25 ton blast doors.
History of FEMA
FEMA was formed in 1979 during the Carter Administration to bring together the federal government's emergency planning and emergency recovery functions for natural and man-made disasters. FEMA was an independent federal agency answering directly to the president. It became a part of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.
FEMA is headquartered in Washington D.C., and has 10 Regional offices across the United States. It can trace its beginnings to the Congressional Act of 1803. This act, generally considered the first piece of disaster legislation, provided assistance to a New Hampshire town following an extensive fire. In the century that followed, ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.
By the 1930s, when the federal approach to problems became popular, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was given authority to make disaster loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities following an earthquake, and later, other types of disasters.
In 1934, the Bureau of Public Roads was given authority to provide funding for highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters. The Flood Control Act, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greater authority to implement flood control projects, was also passed. This piecemeal approach to disaster assistance was problematic and it prompted legislation that required greater cooperation between federal agencies and authorized the President to coordinate these activities.
The 1960s and early 1970s brought massive disasters requiring major federal response and recovery operations by the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, established within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Hurricane Carla struck in 1962, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The Alaskan Earthquake hit in 1964 and the San Fernando Earthquake rocked Southern California in 1971. These events served to focus attention on the issue of natural disasters and brought about increased legislation. In 1968, the National Flood Insurance Act offered new flood protection to homeowners, and in 1974 the Disaster Relief Act firmly established the process of presidential disaster declarations.
However, emergency and disaster activities were still fragmented. When hazards associated with nuclear power plants and the transportation of hazardous substances were added to natural disasters, more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of disasters, hazards and emergencies. Many parallel programs and policies existed at the state and local level, compounding the complexity of federal disaster relief efforts. The National Governor's Association sought to decrease the many agencies with which state and local governments were forced work. They asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions.
Executive Order 12127
President Carter's 1979 executive order merged many of the separate disaster-related responsibilities into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Among other agencies, FEMA absorbed: the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. Civil defense responsibilities were also transferred to the new agency from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.
John Macy was named as FEMA's first director. Macy emphasized the similarities between natural hazards preparedness and the civil defense activities. FEMA began development of an Integrated Emergency Management System with an all-hazards approach that included "direction, control and warning systems which are common to the full range of emergencies from small isolated events to the ultimate emergency - war."
The new agency was faced with many unusual challenges in its first few years that emphasized how complex emergency management can be. Early disasters and emergencies included the contamination of Love Canal, the Cuban refugee crisis and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Later, the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 focused major national attention on FEMA.
In 1993, President Clinton nominated James L. Witt as the new FEMA director. Witt became the first agency director with experience as a state emergency manager. He initiated sweeping reforms that streamlined disaster relief and recovery operations, insisted on a new emphasis regarding preparedness and mitigation, and focused agency employees on customer service. The end of the Cold War also allowed Witt to redirect more of FEMA's limited resources from civil defense into disaster relief, recovery and mitigation programs.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Joe M. Allbaugh as the director of FEMA. Within months, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th focused the agency on issues of national preparedness and homeland security, and tested the agency in unprecedented ways. The agency coordinated its activities with the newly formed Office of Homeland Security, and FEMA's Office of National Preparedness was given responsibility for helping to ensure that the nation's first responders were trained and equipped to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
A New Mission: Homeland Security
Billions of dollars of new funding were directed to FEMA to help communities face the threat of terrorism. Just a few years past its 20th Anniversary, FEMA was actively directing its "all-hazards" approach to disasters toward homeland security issues. In March 2003, FEMA joined 22 other federal agencies, programs and offices in becoming the Department of Homeland Security. The new department, headed by then-Secretary Tom Ridge, brought a coordinated approach to national security from emergencies and disasters - both natural and man-made.
On Oct. 4, 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act. The act significantly reorganized FEMA, provided it substantial new authority to remedy gaps that became apparent in the response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, and included a more robust preparedness mission for FEMA.