Chief says new fire station would balance cost against future need
JANESVILLE--Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen said planning to replace the city's central fire station means balancing cost now against needs of the future.
He wants to assure residents their money will be spent wisely, but he also wants a facility that will serve the community well for many years, he said.
The Janesville City Council recently approved spending $6.2 million to $7.4 million to replace the central fire station at 303 Milton Ave. The station, built in 1957, also houses fire department administrative staff.
The cost for the owner of the average home assessed at $120,100 was estimated at $21 to $25 a year for 10 years.
Council member Douglas Marklein at a recent meeting said he wants to be sure the building isn't a “Taj Mahal.”
“I don't want this to be a palace,” Marklein said. “It's not a palace. It's a fire station. It's a working building.
“I don't think it needs to be really extravagant.”
“It's a fine line,” Marklein acknowledged. “You gotta plan a little bit for the future.”
Marklein more recently told The Gazette that some people in the community, including him, suspect the city's new bus garage could have been built less expensively. He noted the project at one point was $250,000 over budget.
Total cost of the bus garage is $7.95 million. The federal government is paying more than 80 percent of the cost.
The bus garage is an example of spending more now to accommodate the future. The new building is fortified in case buses in the future are converted from diesel fuel to more explosive compressed natural gas, said Dave Mumma, transit director.
As for the fire station, “I'm keeping an eye on it,” Marklein said.
He has asked that the council be involved early in the planning.
A city first began talking about a new fire station in 1994. Jensen said renovations at the 57-year-old station since then have been delayed, and the result is leaking windows and roof and inadequate quarters for employees and equipment.
The design approved by the council in October is being redrawn to fit the site recently approved by the council in closed session, Marklein said. The location has not been made public. The city had been looking at several sites, including two near Adams Elementary School and Craig High School.
The current station is on about 0.69 acres, but up to two acres might be needed for a new station.
The initial design included seven bays. The current station has four.
Jensen has since recommended the new station have eight bays. Jensen wants to build the station large enough to house extra equipment and host training, he said.
It would be a mistake to build a station that does not meet current demands, let alone future demands, he said.
“That's what I struggle with as a chief,” Jensen said. “I see that this building has been there for 57 years … If we're going to build a building that's going to last 50 years, I struggle with making a decision to build a building smaller than what our needs are today in 2014.
“I don't want to be the chief they look back on (and say), 'They cut corners on this and this, and they handicapped (us) for the future,' ” Jensen said.
“If they only do this once every 50 to 60 years, let's do this right.”
Station No. 1 opened the same year the city got its first ambulance. Fire engines today are twice as big and perform different operations, Jensen said.
The department has a dive rescue team and hazardous materials team. Those specialized teams didn't exist in 1957. It has fire trucks, reserve vehicles, maintenance vehicles and inspector pickups.
“There's just a lot of vehicles,” Jensen said.
Two of the city's five stations have two bays and can fit only one fire truck and one ambulance with no room to store auxiliary equipment.
The city added a third bay at Station No. 3 a few years ago because the bays weren't large enough for the new fire trucks.
Station No. 4, built on Milwaukee Street in 1980, has three deeper bays, leaving some room at the back of the bays. That's where the department keeps its hazardous materials equipment, which includes two trailers and two vehicles. The Janesville Fire Department operates Rock County's hazardous materials unit.
Station No. 1 houses as many vehicles as the department can squeeze in, Jensen said.
“It's a challenge,” Jensen said.
Many times firefighters have to quickly move equipment to access other equipment.
“It's very cramped out there. There's hardly room to move between vehicles," he said.
Some of the eight proposed bays would have at least two vehicles in them, Jensen said.
He would like to centralize equipment for all the specialized teams at the central station for efficiency and training.
If the new station is built at the site of the existing central fire station, the city would have to buy and raze nearby homes to accommodate the new, larger station.
Could fire department administration be moved elsewhere to minimize the space needed?
Jensen acknowledged administrators could locate elsewhere.
“But where do you divide administration from the fire department?” he asked.
Shift commanders are administrators, but they also respond to fires. The chief and deputy chief meet with commanders many times a day, he said.
Firefighters are in and out of administrative offices all day, including the fire inspector's office. Those meetings would have to take place elsewhere.
“I probably make a trip to City Hall maybe once a day now,” Jensen said. “But if I was at City Hall, I don't know how many trips I'd have to make to Station No. 1 in a day. It's very difficult to do everything over the phone.”
Jensen said he wants to make sure the new central fire station has enough space for training.
The Art Stearns Fire Training Center on County F on the city's north side is in the wrong location to store equipment or host some kinds of training, he said.
The location was chosen by design. The training done there with aerial ladders and water spraying and the resulting noise are best removed from the busy city, Jensen said.
The training center was finished in 1987 and includes a building with classrooms, a smoke maze and a multifloor search and rescue practice facility.
The smoke maze gets a lot of use, but the classroom space is used less, especially this time of year when firefighters don't do much outdoor training, he said.
The complex is used once or twice a week during warm weather, Jensen said. Other departments use the center, as well.
“Training is very important to us,” Jensen said. “Training is fundamental to everything we do.
“I think we could use it (the center) more, but we are very busy.”
Firefighters do the majority of their training on duty, so training costs an additional $1.50 per hour rather than the cost of paying overtime for off-duty training, Jensen said.
Because the training center is located on the north edge of the city, firefighters from only two or three stations can be gathered there at a one time, leaving other units to respond to calls. Response time from the training center to the south side might be 15 minutes, he said.
“It's not a place that we can bring everybody together for a meeting,” Jensen said. “If we have one opportunity to take part in a training session, we can't all meet at the same time.”
If a central fire station had a large mulitpurpose room, all firefighters on duty could gather there and quickly respond, if necessary, to any location in the city. Larger training sessions would reduce the number of smaller sessions.
Jensen pledged the new fire station would be a “very functional and efficient building.
“We are by no means designing a Taj Mahal,” Jensen said.
“It wouldn't be extravagant.”