Middlebury firefighters launch pitch for new HQ

MIDDLEBURY — With the new Cross Street Bridge due for completion in a little more than three months, Middlebury selectmen on Tuesday got a first-hand view of what could be the community’s next big capital improvement project — a new municipal fire station.
Middlebury fire Chief Rick Cole and Assistant Chief David Shaw led the selectboard on a tour of the department’s East Middlebury station and Seymour Street headquarters, pointing out deficiencies including rotting window sills, floor cracks and bays that won’t be able to accommodate the next generation of fire equipment. And that next generation of equipment is due in 2013 — a new ladder truck that is three feet taller than the largest station bay available.
“We know something has to be done,” Cole said. “Tonight was the first step.”
A fire facilities committee made up of firefighters, town officials and citizens began meeting this past winter to take stock of the department’s current accommodations and recommend possible upgrades to solve shortcomings and meet the community’s growing fire protection needs.
The East Main Street station is a former service station (owned by the East Middlebury Fire District) that has been added to over the years. It houses a pumper, a tanker and a utility truck. Firefighters noted cracked roof shingles peppered with moss, rotting windowsills and roof soffits, a deteriorating foundation, and a multi-graded concrete floor with no drainage, requiring equipment to be washed outdoors.
In addition, the East Middlebury building’s undefined septic system will not accommodate a shower, according to Cole.
The Seymour Street headquarters dates to the 1930s, with a 1970s addition. The station now houses five vehicles, including a ladder truck that fits in with only inches to spare. Fire officials noted they have to scrape the pavement in front of the fire station’s bay doors after a snowstorm of more than a few inches or the ladder truck won’t clear the bay door. Shaw said the trucks’ side-view mirrors have to be pulled inward in order to get the vehicles into the bays.
The upper floor of the main station is spacious and comfortable, accommodating a conference/training room and a kitchen/gathering spot for firefighters. But the cramped street-level floor and underlying basement are of prime concern to firefighters, many of whom must enter the vehicles after they have exited the station because of a lack of clearance between doors and adjacent walls and equipment.
Shaw pointed to extra timber and steel reinforcement posts added to the basement to reinforce the main floor above, which is showing stress cracks and rot spots and is being asked to support many tons of firefighting vehicles and equipment.
“The thing you don’t see here is that all of our fire suppression equipment is in a building that doesn’t have any fire suppression at all,” Shaw said. “There is no alarm system, no sprinkler system. So we could lose several million dollars of equipment if somebody doesn’t happen to drive by quickly.”
He noted the community of Johnson lost its firehouse and equipment to a blaze in 2004.
“And this building is an electrical nightmare,” Shaw said, citing the patchwork of circuitry feeding the station.
Middlebury selectboard chairman John Tenny acknowledged the fire department’s needs and believes it is unlikely that renovations at one or both stations are a viable option. The conversation, he said, is now likely to focus on whether the department’s functions can be carried out though a single station, and, if so, where that station should be built in order to provide the best response time to both Middlebury and East Middlebury.
“I know there has been a good deal of discussion by the committee about a one-site solution, and I think that is probably a reasonable direction to be thinking of, and that if that one site is found that is centrally located to the need, the response time would probably be as good or better than we have from two sites combined,” Tenny said. “Certainly, we could do a far better job of housing our equipment and meeting the needs more efficiently.”
Voters will ultimately decide on a new fire station or stations at the polls. Such a purchase would likely be pitched through a long-term bond issue, according to Tenny. In making their case to voters, fire officials will show, among other things, how the current stations are expensive to maintain because of their shortcomings.
For example, Cole said it costs only $400 more per year to heat the three-story Seymour Street headquarters than it does the single-story East Middlebury station at the intersection of Kings Row and East Main Street.
“Right now, our next step is to determine if we need one station, two stations, and where (to locate),” Cole said.
The facilities committee, Cole said, will spend the coming months putting together a plan for a new station or stations.
“We are going to work on it, but we don’t want to rush into it,” Cole said, though he stressed a project is in the offing.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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