Problems mount for Bristol fire department

BRISTOL — Bristol Fire Chief Brett LaRose gave a grim appraisal of the town firehouse’s condition to the Bristol selectboard Monday evening.
LaRose presented a 10-page study by Williston firm Childs Engineering that outlined the numerous shortcomings of the North Street firehouse, which was built in 1897.
“This report makes it reality, all the issues we have had and currently have,” LaRose told the board. “We’re dealing with a building that’s just unsafe.”
The town continues to negotiate with the Bristol Recreation Club for the purchase of land on which to build a new fire facility. Even if town residents were to approve the construction of a new firehouse this month, it would be about two years for a new facility to be complete. In the meantime, Bristol’s volunteer firefighters are struggling to make do with their current facility on North Street.
Due to structural deficiencies, the fire department cannot park trucks in the building nor use it as a meeting space for more than a handful of people, leading LaRose and the selectboard to question whether to stop using it entirely.
The report notes that the wood frame structure was built to house 19th-century fire equipment, not 20-ton apparatus. Over the years, additional supports were placed in the basement to support the first floor. Though the department is confident that the floor can support the weight of firetrucks, concerns about the foundation have prevented any trucks from being parked inside the firehouse.
The study found that the ground beneath the firehouse foundation is unstable, possible because of a failing septic system. Firefighters found several holes in the concrete slab on the basement floor where the soil has eroded away underneath. Therefore, the department is concerned that the floor may not provide support for the extra beams that in turn support the first floor.
The report notes that the second floor sags beneath the pool table, and is unsafe to host large meetings. On the first floor, some of the hardwood has buckled and torn away from nails. Because the two bay doors occupy most of the front wall of the firehouse, the study found that the building is vulnerable to high winds and earthquakes.
Since the department can’t park its trucks inside the firehouse nor use it as a meeting place, LaRose and the selectboard wondered whether it made sense to keep heating the place, a significant expense every winter.
“Do you want to spend $6,000 to heat that building?” LaRose asked. “It’s not really usable. We can’t park firetrucks in it or have large groups in it. We can’t use it for what it’s meant for.”
“There’s no need to heat it if we’re not going to eat or train in there,” added Selectman Joel Bouvier, who is also a firefighter.
LaRose said the department is looking to use Holley Hall and the American Legion hall in town for meetings, training and monthly dinners, which he said are an opportunity for firefighters to socialize.
“I’d hate to lose that because that’s an important part of the organization,” he said.
Right now, the department has no choice but to store its trucks at several different locations.
LaRose said the department’s current situation is far from ideal, and threatens firefighters’ ability to ensure the safety of Bristol residents.
“It’s something that’s very problematic, to have apparatus in several places,” LaRose said. “It all could affect first response time, when you could save someone’s life.”
LaRose and the selectboard also discussed fixing the septic system, but acknowledged an immediate obstacle — no one is quite sure where the septic is.
“There’s a hole in the ground somewhere, but it truly is a mystery,” LaRose said. “Some of our old members didn’t even know where it was.”
Finding the septic isn’t the only problem. The selectboard wondered how much money the town should devote to updating a facility that will be replaced. The board discussed hooking up the firehouse septic to the municipal sewer, but that would require permitting and would not be feasible until next summer at the earliest.
LaRose was frank in urging the selectboard to avoid relying on firefighters to perform work they are not qualified for.
“For any future expenses that you have to do with that building, you have to hire contractors,” LaRose said. “You can’t ask volunteer firefighters to repair their own building.”
Town Administrator Therese Kirby conceded that no matter what fixes the selectboard authorizes, they will be short-term, and the firehouse will remain inadequate for the needs of the department.
“Any action you take is a temporary action,” she said.
The town of Bristol has engaged in a multi-year process to site a new firehouse. Earlier this year the consensus choice emerged as a spot on West Street which currently hosts the Hub teen center and a private home. Funding for purchase of the land and construction of a new firehouse would have to be approved by voters.
Kirby told the Independent Tuesday that the town on Oct. 30 submitted an offer to the recreation club to purchase property for a new firehouse. Club officials have yet to meet with other members to vote on the offer.
Kirby said there is no chance the town would be in a position to place a firehouse bond on the Town Meeting Day ballot. That’s because after the town signs an agreement with the recreation club, it must then complete a separate negotiation with Ed and Suzanne Shepard, who own a plot adjacent to the club on which part of the proposed fire facility would sit.

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