Using a Jaws of Life device to cut through a small ribbon would generally appear to be an extreme case of overkill.

On Thursday afternoon, however, it seemed fittingly appropriate.

Doug Dickson, a retired Santa Maria firefighter and current instructor at Hancock College’s fire academy, powered up the hydraulic extraction tool and snapped through a ceremonial ribbon as several Hancock, city of Lompoc, Santa Barbara County and elected state officials celebrated the official grand opening of Hancock’s Public Safety Training Complex (PSTC).

“What we are witnessing and experiencing today is the transformation from need, to vision to reality,” County Sheriff Bill Brown said of the facility, which has been a dream for many for decades.

The complex, which was built with $38 million of Measure I funds, has been open to students enrolled in Hancock’s public safety academies since January. Thursday’s ceremony was the first look, however, for many community leaders who helped get Measure I on the ballot -- and ultimately approved -- in 2006.

The public is invited to get an up-close look at the new state-of-the-art facility Saturday during a “Community Day” event at the complex from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. That free event, like Thursday’s ceremony, will include guided bus tours of the 68-acre facility, as well as live demonstrations of the various training methods.

Among the amenities at the complex are a six-story burn tower, 100-yard shooting range, 1.3-mile high-speed track, scenario village, skid pan and trench area.

“We’re able to do things in this facility that we can’t do on the city streets or county streets in our areas,” David Senior, Hancock’s interim associate dean of public safety, said Thursday.

While talking to the assembled crowd at Thursday’s grand opening, Senior noted that the complex was built with the future in mind and will be able to adapt and add programs as needed. It was designed to accommodate training related to homeland security, disaster preparedness and emergency response in addition to the police, fire and EMS academies.

“We have endless possibilities, and we’re still figuring out what those things are,” he said, likening the training at the complex to the practices that keep musicians and athletes at the top of their games. “If you don’t practice, you get rusty and you start making mistakes. In public safety, when you start making mistakes, bad things happen.”

Kevin Walthers, Hancock’s superintendent/president, described himself as “the luckiest college president in the state” due to his arrival last year near the end of Hancock’s transformation that was spurred by the $180 million Measure I bond.

Walthers noted that many Hancock students, particularly from the North County, face long odds when it comes to higher education and the job market.

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“It’s great when we have the success stories, but what we really need to do is change the odds for those students,” he said. “This (PSTC) provides our students an opportunity get the training that will get them a job that will serve their community and allow them to raise a family.”

Nearly all of the speakers Thursday expressed gratitude for everyone, including the voters, that made Measure I, and ultimately the PSTC, possible. Several of them also looked ahead to the impact that the facility could have on the local economy.

Lompoc City Administrator Patrick Wiemiller said that everyone at City Hall was fully supportive of the complex and acknowledged that there are “enhanced economic development opportunities” that are available to Lompoc as a result of the center’s existence.

“We certainly see that we are able to fill hotel rooms and sell restaurant meals,” he said, “but overall, the bigger impact to our city and the other cities that benefit from the training that goes on here is that we have safer communities where people feel more assured of where they can live and where they can do business.”

Sheriff Brown echoed those thoughts, while adding that the most remarkable aspects of the complex weren't on display but rather within the trainees who will continue to fill it year after year.

“This public safety academy will be preparing and fine-tuning members of our professions long after all of us here today have faded away,” he said. “This academy will help mold the men and women who serve as our community’s first line of defense, who guard it against evil, illness and disaster.”

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