2014-02-06 / News

Fire chief estimates $2M needed

By Margo Sullivan

The town may have to pony up $2 million to expand the fire station at 50 Narragansett Ave., buy a new truck and build a new garage in the North End, Fire Chief Jim Bryer told the Town Council on Jan. 3.

Bryer met with councilors Monday to present the Fire Department’s strategic plan. He said the thinking now favored undertaking all the projects at the same time, rather than choosing options.

He will present the $2 million spending package as part of the department’s capital budget.

According to Bryer, the department is at a “kind of crossroads” because space is at a premium at the central station on Narragansett Avenue. One result of the constraints is that valuable equipment, including a rescue boat, has been left outdoors.

Adding to the space crunch, the staff has now grown to 130, but the department lacks the room to house the emergency medics with the firefighters. Some 96 of the staff are volunteers, he said. Ideally, everyone would all work out of the same headquarters.

The firefighters and ambulance workers are all members of the same department, Michael Pinksaw Jr. pointed out.

Currently, however, the EMS division is based at Knowles Court and workers have to deal with coed sleeping arrangements and insufficient shower space.

“We’re pretty tight at the current station,” he said.

The ambulance service is based at 11 Knowles Court, and the building is “pretty inadequate for what we need to do,” he added. Three or four medics typically work a 12- hour shift at Knowles Court, and their quarters are cramped.

According to Bryer, the ambulance barn lacks storage space, the kitchen is too small, and there’s no training room. The medics have to go to the central station for training.

There is a “good sized room” on the second floor, the chief said, but it’s not handicap accessible or compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bryer said the department answers about 800 calls annually, and 300 are for fires. The rest are medical emergencies, and more than half the calls come from the North End.

Bryer gave the council an inventory of the equipment and indicated where the tankers and other vehicles are located now.

Some have been sitting outside for the last eight to 10 years, he said, and the longer they’re left in the elements, “the worse shape they’re getting in.”

During storm emergencies, the department sends an ambulance and a pumper truck to “either end of the island,” and the trucks have to sit outside through the weather.

Bryer said the department has kept “putting off” purchasing new fire trucks.

According to the fire chief, the department needs a new pumper. The town has been using a 1984 vehicle, and Bryer says it’s reached the “end of its useful life.” It also lacks a closed cab in the rear.

“The firefighters really shouldn’t be in there,” he said.

Deputy Fire Chief Howard Tighe says Engine 2 also has to be replaced. He estimated the 1992 model had “eight more years, max.” The estimate was too generous, Tighe added, and says five years was more accurate an estimate.

“The bigger problem right now is standard trucks off the line don’t fit in our station,” Tighe said. The station was built in 1926. “We have to get custom-made trucks. We don’t get what we want.”

Moreover, a standard issue truck should cost about $300,000, but the custom engines cost $540,000.

There is no working around the problem, Tighe said, because the custom trucks cannot be parked outside. Since the town doesn’t have hydrants on the North End, the trucks carry water and the pipes will freeze if left outside in the cold weather.

Next, Bryer wants to address the situation with EMS quarters, and then deal with making the training room federally compliant. Given the fact the department needs so many improvements, Bryer wanted direction from the council.

“What do we do?” he asked.

As a first step, Bryer suggested building a garage in the North End to house the vehicles now being left outside. Next, he said, the town should improve the central station by expanding on the Grinnell Street end so a standard truck can fit inside. The third step is buying the new truck. Next, deal with the EMS quarters and ideally move the staff out of Knowles Court. The ambulance barn is town property and could be sold. Finally, Bryer wants to “address the remote location for storm events.”

Councilor Thomas Tighe asked if truck repair bills had been higher than average, given the fact the trucks had to be custom-made.

Yes, Bryer replied.

Councilor Eugene Mihaly asked what options the town had. For example, would one option be building the North End facility?

Bryer said the department wants to do it all at once because “one doesn’t solve the other.” But the initial step would be to expand the central station and buy the new truck.

Meagher agreed the main project should be expanding the central station and buying the new truck, while the options could be the North End garage and vacating Knowles Court to move EMS to the central station.

Councilor Tighe replied the department has been “skating a fine line with co-ed dorms. All it takes is one complaint.”

Mihaly asked if the North End garage would be used to improve response time in that section of town.

“We’re not going to use that to respond,” said Bryer, explaining the garage would be for storage. Using town land to build the garage and with some help from the Public Works Department, he has priced the cost at $430,000, including $130,000 for a metal building. Adding site work, septic system, heat, water and electricity increased the total.

Council President Kristine Trocki asked if Bryer had included the amount in the department’s budget.

Bryer said he put a number in the capital budget.

Town Administrator Kevin Paicos said he and Finance Director Tina Collins are in the process of prioritizing department requests.

“This is a very high priority,” Paicos said. “The useful life [of the equipment] is being compromised prematurely.”

Paicos said the addition at the central station and the purchase of the new pumper would logically come first.

“EMS would be a second piece, and North End a third piece,” he said.

Bryer estimated the improvements at the central station will cost $1 million, bringing the total to around $1.7 to $2 million.

Councilor Blake Dickinson asked Bryer to provide the council with long-term and short-term priorities before it discusses the budget.

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