By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

WHITESTOWN — The state Preparedness Training Center is getting off the ground at the former county airport.

Last year, more than 600 State and local first responder agencies, private and non-profit organizations and federal agencies sent more than 3,400 students to the training center that utilizes several buildings, as well as open space like runways and taxiways.

The center opened in 2006. Today it is has a full-time staff of 16 with a payroll of more than $959,000. The state has a 15-year lease for the facility with Oneida County with an annual rent of $636,000.

Currently under way is a multiyear project to develop a series of training assets at the center that were identified based on needs of the first responders in both New York and nationally.

Numerous additional improvements are planned at the center, 5900 Airport Road, as part of the $42 million capital project.

Presently in design is a simulations complex cityscape involving reality based scenario course designs. The project consists of converting an aircraft hangar into a state-of-the-art training venue to include simulated retail stores, businesses, a school, city-style apartments, a bank, courtroom, and interior shopping mall together with infrastructure enhancements to the surrounding area.

The design includes camera systems, sound, lighting and other environmental special effects to create and record training in a realistic environment.

Under development is an emergency vehicle operational course. Already completed are roadway resurfacing, construction of observation towers, weather shelters, restroom facilities and signage. The next phase includes construction of a field operations building that will feature a vehicle driving simulator area. The second phase is expected to go out to bid shortly.

A weapons training complex project is presently in conceptual design and is being developed. The intent is to allow for live-fire training scenarios including tactical and unique sniper training.

In 2011, conversion of the former airport terminal into office and conference facilities was completed. Additionally, the front entrance area and adjacent parking lot were updated. Work included construction of roadways, new parking areas, sidewalks and an outside student break area together with landscape and lighting enhancements, and security and access controls.

On Thursday, two state senators toured the facility to learn about the work the center does to prepare first responders in the event of an emergency. The legislators also visited the nearby Eastern Air Defense Sector operations center at nearby Griffiss Business and Technology Park.

"We have assets here in our region which are essential to the mission of both national and statewide security," said Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome. "As we begin work on other challenging state budget deliberations, my colleagues need to keep in mind how important these facilities are."

Griffo was joined by Sen. Greg Ball, R-40, Putnam County, a former Air Force officer.

"There may come a time when we need to bring together the homeland security resources from around the region and we need to be fully prepared for that day," said Ball. "By touring the facilities in my district and outside of my district, I’m able to gain a better understanding of the resources at our disposal and the improvements that need to be made to ensure that New York is prepared for any disaster that comes our way."

Griffo is a member of the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee that is chaired by Ball. The chairman says New York is among the top targets for terrorists and remaining vigilant means maintaining funding for such facilities.

"The Homeland Security & Emergency Services Preparedness Training Center has trained thousands of emergency responders throughout New York and other states," Griffo added. "Their training has earned them high praise in the law enforcement community and has created an ongoing demand for their services. They are poised for growth there and we need to make sure that we can help them meet that demand."

The center is run by the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. More than 350 courses have been offered by the state agency to nearly 9,200 first responders since 2006. Additionally, agencies and organizations use the center’s facilities to train their own personnel. Those agencies include the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office, Utica Police Department, State Police, Mohawk Valley Police Academy and the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office.