COLONIE — The need is evident and it’s two-fold: the building is antiquated with repairs and maintenance running about $100,000 a year and it’s too small to effectively and efficiently house the volunteers and apparatus.
Still, firefighters at Stanford Heights know convincing the some 3,400 taxpayers in the 7.9-square-mile district to pay for a new fire house will not be easy.
“The biggest obstacle is the perception of ‘you are building something too big, and you really don’t need it,’” said Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners Kevin Hulett. “But we really don’t have a lot of options.”
The district, established in 1920, built the fire house at 2240 Central Ave. and a secondary firehouse on the other side of the rail road tracks on Morris Road to cover the “wildfire prone” Pine Bush Preserve in 1955.
Over the years, Station I has upgraded. There was an addition in 1970 and a new bay in 1992. For the past 28 years, though, firefighters at Stanford Heights have used the Band-Aid approach to keep Station I going while the number of calls have gone up, volunteer operations have become more sophisticated and requirements and regulations more rigorous.
The old building
Issues with the existing building are many, officials said.
For starters, the bays are too small to accommodate the larger trucks recommended by the National Fire Protection Association — one large trucks with more compartments is cheaper and more efficient to use than two smaller trucks with fewer compartments. Right now, while parked in Station I there is only about two feet between trucks and it is difficult for a grown person to squeeze through — and that is before getting geared up in the turnout gear necessary to fight a fire.
The antenna of one truck wore a groove along the top of one bay door after going in and out the same way for two decades and for years firefighters had to worry about getting out during a heavy snowstorm. The truck was 10-foot, three inches tall and the door offered only three inches of clearance. Two inches or more of snow, and it got too tight for comfort.
Last year, the mechanism used to operate one of the bay doors broke and it would only open half way.
“You are not supposed to run through a fire department, but when you get a structure fire the adrenaline is up and it’s just a matter of time before someone gets hurt and it’s just a matter of time before there is an accident out front,” Hulett said. “We have just outgrown it. It’s either we follow through with the new building or we spend a lot of money continue taking a Band-Aid approach.”
The fact the fire house is on Central Avenue is a curse and blessing. It’s centrally located to accommodate residents within the district living in Colonie and Niskayuna but to back the large, bulky trucks into their respective bays requires a sharp turn through the small driveway and onto Central Avenue. The best case scenario is traffic is held up on one of the busiest stretches of the thoroughfare, the worst case has not yet — amazingly — been realized, said Second Assistant Chief Patrick Boccio.
“When we are lucky, someone can hit the traffic light for us in the station but that’s not always the case and we have to wait for traffic to pass,” he said. “Drive through bays are a huge recommendation by fire services and you can see how tight it is. There is zero room for error.”
The district is one of a few in the state that crosses county lines — Colonie in Albany County and Niskayuna in Schenectady County — and as such has two radio systems with two different paging frequencies used to call volunteers into service.
The system is hidden in a hallway wall under photos of past chiefs at Stanford Heights Station is, to be kind, antiquated.
“We have been limping along for years,” Hulett said while pointing to the cubby hole full of a
haphazard collection of wires and boxes. “One of our older members who knew his way around in there moved to Tennessee.”
Stanford Heights also provides EMT services but the building doesn’t offer anywhere to store supplies outside of a portable tin closet.
“ We run just significant calls like strokes, traumatic injuries, and cardiac arrest,” Boccio said. “Significant calls use a lot of equipment, and we are constantly ordering equipment because we are forced to play a carousel game because we don’t have enough room to store the equipment and supplies.”
Bucking a nationwide trend, Stanford Heights has seen its numbers grow in recent years which is what every volunteer department wants but struggles with. But, while there are more hands on deck, they are running out of locker room space in the main bays where firefighters store turnout gear between calls.
“We could add a locker here,” Boccio said pointing to a wall next to where the ladder truck is kept. “But that would leave about four inches between that and the ladder truck.”
Also, it is strongly recommended each firehouse have facilities for firefighters to decontaminate should they encounter hazardous materials while on a call. At Stanford Heights, though, those facilities are located in the center of the firehouse without access from the outside so if a firefighter did need to decontaminate, he or she would have to walk through the firehouse potentially contaminating everything and everybody along the way.
In addition to the shortcomings specific to public safety, the building is just old. Outside of what is painfully evident to members, the department commissioned CT Male to do a study of the building and detail the deficiencies in 2007. In short, the mortar needs pointing up, a number of doors require near constant adjusting just to open without a battering ram and the block is too moist to hold a coat of paint for more than a year. The pipes freeze every winter and there is a perpetual problem with the sewer. There is not enough parking to accommodate the some 83 firematic and support members and there is no office space to speak of.
And, any volunteer firehouse is as much a community center as it is a place to store fire trucks but Stanford Heights is not ADA compliant.
“If someone is in a wheelchair we have to lift them up the three steps to get inside,” Hulett said.
The Boy Scouts use the firehouse as a gathering place as does Colonie Little League. Nursing home residents have evacuated to the fire house and police officers from Niskayuna and Colonie have access to the fire house as a rest stop. Mohawk and Colonie ambulance services use the fire house as staging areas during storms because of its central location.
The new building
Representatives from the department and Chazen Companies presented a sketch plan of the new building to the Planning Board last month.
The 20,000-square-foot, two-story building would be constructed behind the existing building on 3-plus acres of land the department already owns between Covington and Wilbur avenues.
The 17,000-square-foot first floor would feature drive through bays and instead of entering and exiting onto Central Avenue, fire trucks would pull in from Central to Covington and pull out onto Wilbur to head onto Central Avenue or Albany Street.
The 2,200-square-foot second floor would have a conference room and a full kitchen to accommodate the department and other community based organizations that use the building.
It would include a new radio system, a decontamination room accessible from the outside, bigger bays for fire apparatus and cubicle sized offices for firematic and support officers.
The well-earned reputation of two decades ago of a firehouse being more of a clubhouse for members than a public safety hub is just not true any longer and there will not be a bar in the new building. There will be a day room for firefighters to congregate and amenities for them to spend the night.
There would be a total of 71 parking spots with 17 set aside for first responders.
While the location is not ideal, other possible locations larger enough to accommodate a fire house either fell through or were not for sale.
The old firehouse would remain standing until the new one is operational then it would be demolished and the land would be greenspace. Since it would basically front on three different streets, the address is up in the air but officials would prefer it remain as officially on Central Avenue.
Planning Board members did express concern with the fire house sitting that far back off a major street and into a residential neighborhood along Covington — albeit is mostly rental properties.
The department would need approval on two fronts: the town will needs to endorse the site plan before construction can start and since the department is its own taxing district, the residents will need to approve bonding the money to pay for it.
Construction is likely three years out so it is difficult to know how much the building will cost or how much the department will need to borrow. The interest rates now, though, make it an attractive time to build. A fire department in Rochester, for example, said Fire Commissioner Robert Winston, recently bonded for a new fire house and is paying less than 1 percent interest.
Right now, Colonie residents living in the district pay $2.07 per $1,000 of assessed value and Niskayuna residents pay $1.30 per $1,000. A relatively small amount compared to county, town and school levies but fire officials know it is never easy asking residents to pay more taxes.
There is not even a tentative date for a vote, but there are a series of meetings planned to talk to residents about the plans with the first tentatively scheduled for Sept. 24 and will likely be for those property owners nearest the proposed new station. The logistics have not been worked out yet and it could be all at once at the fire house or it could be more than one meeting with a limited number of people at each. Or, it could be virtual.
“We want the residents involved because it is for the community it is not just for the Stanford Heights Fire Department,” Winston said.
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