Middlebury firefighters move into refurbished quarters

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury firefighter Donald Patterson started taking pictures of the fire department’s Seymour Street headquarters last April when construction crews began the multi-million-dollar process of renovating and expanding it.
Eleven months, a lot of hard work and more than 1,000 Patterson photographs later, the Seymour Street fire station is substantially complete and now occupied by a grateful Middlebury Fire Department.
“We have a premier facility,” Middlebury Fire Department Lt. Pat Shaw said happily Tuesday morning as he led a tour of the building that now includes a four-bay addition and major upgrades to the existing station, which was built in stages in 1932 and 1978.
“We owe a lot to the taxpayers for giving us this facility.”
On Town Meeting Day 2012 Middlebury residents voted 782-367 in favor of a 20-year, $4.625-million bond to replace the East Middlebury fire station and substantially upgrade the department’s Seymour Street headquarters. Shaw, who led an ad hoc committee that shaped the construction plans, was pleased to report on Tuesday that the project (except for a few tweaks) is ready on time and within budget.
The department will officially unveil the station at an open house tentatively scheduled for Memorial Day. In the meantime, firefighters have moved the force’s vehicles into the spacious new bays and have officially re-established full operations in a home base they expect will serve the community into the next century.
For the first time ever, the fire headquarters has a full sprinkler system with an alarm system to protect the taxpayers’ investment. The new addition — made possible thanks to the purchase of some adjacent property from the Middlebury Community House — allows firefighters to not only accommodate and park all the vehicles with ease, it allows them to wash those vehicles indoors. That used to happen outdoors, in all kinds of weather. Ceiling fans ensure that moisture on the vehicles, uniforms, gear and floor is quickly evaporated.
There’s enough room now to maintain eight feet of space between each truck. The bay doors are 14 feet by 14 feet.
Firefighters’ lockers are located at the rear of the addition. Personnel can now park behind the facility and enter the addition from a rear door, don their gear, and access the trucks from behind — as opposed to from the front, as it used to be. This will reduce chances for accidents as the firefighters make haste to get to an emergency. The interior floor surface of the garage is covered with an epoxy to prevent slipping. And the exterior surface immediately outside of the garage bays can be heated to melt ice to prevent vehicles skidding as they exit the station.
Activity within and directly outside of the garage is closely monitored from the new dispatch center, which fronts Chief Rick Cole’s new office.
Shaw said the well-insulated stations will offer savings.
“We can set the temperature at 60 degrees and it stays warm,” he said. The department’s previous stations were energy hogs.
The Seymour Street building is served by two boilers, one of which is equipped to burn LP gas. That’s in anticipation of the Vermont Gas Systems’ plans to extend a natural gas pipeline to Middlebury by next year. The other boiler burns fuel oil.
“We figured it would be easier to switch  one (boiler) over, than two,” Shaw said.
A visit to the lower level of the building is a real eye-opener. It was space that used to be poorly configured and tough to navigate. It was characterized by a lot of metal posts that had been inserted to prop up a floor that was hard-pressed to support the weight of large trucks that were never envisioned in 1932 and 1978.
The new space is a lot more open and sufficient for a work-out room (with equipment transferred from the East Middlebury station) and a storage/display area for the department’s many historical firefighting artifacts. Among them: Old backpacks, signs, a vintage steamer, hose cradle and a hand pump. There’s also enough room for training, some of which will occur in a tower built in the front façade of the building. Firefighters can tie off lines and lower themselves up or down the tower, simulating situations that could occur in some of the town’s taller buildings.
Designers also took pains to weave old aspects of the building into the new construction. There are trophy display cases built into places where windows and doors were once situated. The main door in the 1978 portion of the station remains in service. Old steel doors have been repurposed wherever possible. The boiler room in the 1932 section is located in what used to be the coal room. There, firefighters would receive and shovel coal into the former heating system. A primitive bottle opener remains perched on an old nail, reminding people of the refreshment firefighters sought during the rigorous shoveling spells.
The upper level of the station has been refurbished, with some new kitchen appliances in a lounge area that firefighters can enjoy during down time and for occasional suppers. There’s a spacious meeting room with desks and chairs. A speaker system connects all of the major rooms and the garage. An elevator provides ease of delivery for heavy items. Lights flicker on by motion detector, thus saving on electricity bills.
Shaw noted the recently completed project will not only satisfy the department’s needs for years to come, it was built to accommodate future expansion, if needed. The roof of the new garage addition is strong enough to accommodate sleeping quarters, if the department ever moves to a full-time force.
Tuesday saw several firefighters inspecting the new station and moving in supplies. Among them was Assistant Chief Myron Selleck.
“I think it’s outstanding,” he said of the refurbished station.
He credited the “great support of the community,” a good planning process and solid work by contractor Bread Load Corp. in bringing together a new facility the town can be proud of. There were only a few unanticipated hitches, one of them being the discovery of three layers of hollow ceramic brick behind the front fascia of the 1932 section of the station. Shaw said the hollow brick was an old-school way of insulating. Trouble is, it is difficult to meld it into new construction, due to its fragility. That required the use of some more steel and additional engineering.
“Everyone worked together and we got through it,” Selleck said.
That’s not to say there weren’t some challenges. Middlebury firefighters responded to a record 217 calls for service in 2012, a period during which the fire stations were in flux. Some fire trucks were stored off-site at such locations as the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association headquarters and Goodro Lumber.
“There was never a complaint,” Shaw said of how firefighters adapted to the transition. He added the department owes a debt of gratitude to the parties that temporarily accommodated the force’s trucks and equipment.
Patterson said he was struck by the speed of the project.
“It was amazing how fast it went,” Patterson said.
Meanwhile, East Middlebury firefighters are pleased with their new station, completed last year.
“We don’t have snow drifts inside the station anymore,” Firefighter Don Mason quipped, noting how the elements would creep into the old station through large gaps in doors.
Selleck believes firefighters will have some extra spring in their step as they perform their duties in the new stations.
“I think it really boosts morale,” Selleck said. “We’ve come a long way; this is certainly something to be proud of.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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