Time short for Bristol firehouse; fixes needed

BRISTOL — About 20 members of the Bristol Fire Department crammed into the basement of Holley Hall Monday evening to hear how the selectboard planned to fix their crumbling headquarters on North Street.
Firefighters expressed a general sense of frustration that the town has not yet approved a plan for a new firehouse structure, and that the current firehouse does not meet the needs of the department.
The structure’s wooden frame, which dates back to 1897, cannot support the weight of 21st-century firetrucks. Last month, an engineer determined that the sagging second floor of the building could not safely support more than a handful of people.
As a result of these deficiencies, the department rents space around Bristol to store its apparatus and meets at the American Legion hall.
The most recent problem to befall the North Street firehouse is a faulty septic system, which firefighters believe is eroding the foundation of the structure. On Monday evening, the selectboard unanimously passed a motion to spend up to $10,000 to make structural and electrical upgrades to the station. The board also decided to file an application for a new septic system, in case it decides to install one in the future.
Some firefighters were dismayed the board did not take the additional step of deciding to replace the septic system. At issue was whether the faulty septic should be declared “failed.” The board maintained that because no sewage had surfaced near the firehouse, it had not failed, even though no one knows exactly where the sewage is ending up.
“If you’re not seeing it and you’re not smelling it, you can’t say it has failed,” said Selectman Brian Fox.
A major issue is that no one knows exactly where the septic system lies, or even what type of system it is. Anyone that was alive when it was installed — at the end of the 19th century — has long since died, and the fire department can’t locate any relevant records.
Fire Chief Brett LaRose took issue with the board’s characterization that the septic had not failed.
LaRose said he wanted to be clear in understanding that the board was “openly stating that it is OK that we don’t know where our sewage is going.”
Firefighter Eric Forand, who also serves as the town zoning administrator, wondered why the selectboard chose not to immediately order a new septic system.
“If you get a report from an engineer that your sewer may be deteriorating your foundation, would you walk away from that?” Forand said. “The fire department has put up with so much stuff; now you’re shrinking our station, telling us our bathroom may or may not work, that our sewage may or not be going somewhere.”
Forand said that despite these hardships, the department has pressed on with professionalism and dedication to its mission. But he expressed a sentiment shared by many of his fellow firefighters.
“How long is it going to be?” he said.
Firefighter Matt Lathrop urged the selectboard to try harder to anticipate future problems with the station, rather than regularly funding costly repairs.
“All we’ve done so far is reactive, not proactive,” Lathrop said. “At some point we need to do something before it happens.”
Selectboard members, two of whom are firefighters themselves, said they understood the frustrations the department shared, but said the town must use its limited resources wisely.
Board member John “Peeker” Heffernan, who is also a firefighter and former fire chief, questioned the judgment of installing a new septic system in a firehouse the town hopes to replace as soon as possible.
“I don’t want the fire department to think that we’re shorting them, but with the amount of money we’re going to spend in the near future, we don’t want to spend a ton of money here,” he said.
While the board approved $10,000 to make repairs, members said they do not believe the upgrades will do anything to improve the long-term future of the building.
“I don’t see it as a fix at all,” Heffernan said. “It’s a solution to the problem we have right at the moment.”
Firefighters and selectboard members alike said that every new problem with the North Street firehouse is a reminder that the town, without qualification, needs a new firehouse.
Town Administrator Therese Kirby gave an update to that process: The town is awaiting a response from the Bristol Recreation Club to its offer to buy land on which to build a new structure. Kirby said the club should accept, reject or send a counter offer by the end of the month. If the club and town come to terms, the town would then negotiate for an adjoining parcel on West Street, owned by Ed and Suzanne Shepard.
From there, the town still faces several obstacles to approving a new firehouse. First, voters would need to approve the purchase of land on which the firehouse would sit. In a separate vote later on, voters would need to approve a bond to fund the construction of the structure.
Passage is by no means just a formality — on Town Meeting Day last year, voters by a 2 to 1 margin rejected a proposal to expand the existing North Street firehouse.
At Monday’s meeting, the selectboard and firefighters said they’re still not sure why voters said no to that plan.
“We got defeated pretty soundly in our last vote, so where does that leave us?” Lathrop asked the board. “We can’t keep putting this off three years down the road.”
Heffernan said it is difficult to pinpoint one or two decisive factors because there are a number of possible reasons voters said no to the plan — such as cost, location, a desire to preserve the historic structure, and lack of information about how the renovation would look.
“Put all that together, and we don’t know which one of the reasons you voted ‘no,’ so we can’t tell you right now what went wrong,” he said.
The selectboard decided to form a group, similar to the committee that was tasked with choosing the best site for a new firehouse, to work with an architect and create a design. The board reasoned that one of the reasons voters rejected the last plan was a lack of knowledge about how the renovated firehouse would look. The logic goes that with a design in hand, voters could feel more confident in supporting the purchase of land.
The new committee will be made up of about nine members, drawn from the fire department and larger community. The selectboard plans to interview candidates later in the month, so anyone interested should submit a letter of interest to the board.
LaRose supported the idea, but urged the selectboard to set clear goals and objectives, as to make the best use of volunteers’ time.
The board pledged to educate residents as much as possible about the project, which members believe will give a proposal the best chance of passing.
Bristol resident Fred Baser, who area voters last month elected to the Legislature, said the selectboard must show voters how dedicated the all-volunteer fire department and other town officials have been to developing a plan for a new firehouse over the last several decades.
“You need to educate voters and show them how hard the fire department and town officials have been working on the project,” Baser said.
LaRose, who outlined the dire prognosis for the North Street firehouse to the selectboard in November, again called for taxpayers to support a future vote to build a new firehouse.
“This is a temporary fix,” he said. “We need the help of the taxpayers of Bristol. I hope you can hear that.”

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