Everybody's an expert: Community has questions about new fire station

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, April 5, 2014

JANESVILLE--Councilman Douglas Marklein said “everybody and their brother” have become fire station-siting experts.

Fire Chief Jim Jensen said: “I have heard every imaginable suggestion for a fire department site.”

Questions abound about the location and scope of a city staff recommendation to demolish 12 homes and build a new central fire station just north of its current location at 303 Milton Ave. at a cost of $9.5 million.

That option allows firefighters to operate from the current fire station during construction, after which the old station would be demolished for green space.

Another option at a cost of $9.2 million would require buying and demolishing seven homes, but firefighters would have to relocate for about 10 months during construction.

The Janesville City Council in closed session in November narrowed a list of numerous potential sites to the current location or an adjacent site to the north. The decision was released to the media in late February, when some neighbors said they first learned from newspaper reports their homes were targeted.

Here are some commonly asked questions and answers gleaned from interviews and a March 10 city council meeting:

Q: How did the cost increase from $6.2 million to $7.4 million in October to up to $9.5 million?

A: The first cost estimate did not include property acquisitions and relocations. During the closed-door meeting when the city council made its decision on location, staff estimated those costs to be $450,000, Councilman Jim Farrell said.

Now, the cost to buy and relocate is estimated at $1.4 million to $1.8 million.

“A lot of those numbers were put together pretty quickly,” Jensen said.

Q: In 2009, a city staff member said a site at Racine and Main streets was perfect for a new fire station. Other studies have mentioned a corridor between the current location and Racine Street and Randall Avenue. Now the current fire station location is said to be the best location. What has changed?

A: The 2009 study did not put appropriate emphasis on response times and routes but instead was based on cost and politics, Jensen said.

“Are citizens willing to pay the cost of not properly positioning the station for 50 to 60 years?” he asked.

It's not just about the one station, either, Jensen said. It's about how the system fits together. The central station is the hub, and that location is the most critical.

Q: The majority of city council members agree the city must replace the existing fire station, but why do we need a larger central fire station when the central area isn't likely to grow?

A: The central station is the busiest station because those firefighters cover for outlying stations, which are small, Jensen said. In addition, when three or four stations are at a fire, available units move into the central station to respond to other calls.

Q: Why do we need eight bays instead of the current four?

A: Auxiliary equipment, such as the city's one aerial ladder, must be at the central station to quickly get to fires all over the city.

“We have to arrange multiple resources so we can quickly assemble an adequate force,” Jensen said.

The size of equipment has increased through the years. Some equipment, such as hazardous materials response team equipment, did not even exist when the central station was built.

At its five fire stations, the city has 14 bays, 24 trucks and numerous trailers. The department sometimes must send personnel to get reserve equipment stored at the City Services Center. At the central station, they must move equipment out of the bays to get to the equipment they need. Recently, a tanker arrived at a fire two minutes later than the other equipment because of that jockeying.

“If you're waiting at the scene for water, two minutes is a long, long time,” Jensen said.

Q: Could some non-essential equipment be stored elsewhere?

A: Yes, but only one other station has extra space, and the hazmat equipment is stored there. Reserve equipment frequently is used for major events, so it is more efficient to have it stored centrally.

Q: Couldn't we simply build a smaller station and add a smaller station somewhere else to relieve the pressure?

A: Janesville already needs a sixth station on the northeast side, Jensen said, and it could use a seventh. Those stations haven't been built because of the expense of staffing them. The cost for three people to operate an engine and two people to operate an ambulance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year is $1.2 million per year.

“So buildings are expensive, but compared to personnel, they're cheap,” Jensen said.

The current location of the central fire station works even if sixth and seventh stations are built.

Jensen continues to urge city administration to purchase land for a sixth station in the area of Highway 26 and McCormick Drive.

Q: Could we build the new station in phases so personnel could work out of the current station rather than relocating for 10 months?

A: Staff is exploring that option.

Q: Why are the building designs for both sites the same—only reversed—even though the two sites are different? Shouldn't a building design be tailored to the site?

A: Jensen said the design is a common one for the architects, who specialize in fire departments.

“They know it works well, it flows well,” he said.

The building plan for the southern site would be modified because the grade there requires structural fortification.

The footprint is so large because the department needs outside space for maintenance. Firefighters need space to park their vehicles when they go to the central location for training. Drive-through bays are highly recommended.

Could more work be done on the plans?

“Absolutely,” Jensen said. “We can do that once we determine where the station is going to be so we can get into the plans in detail.”

Q: Could you build an entire second floor rather than a partial second floor to reduce the footprint?

A: Yes, but building up is expensive, Jensen said. It would be a very tall building because the equipment downstairs is so tall. Staff kept administrative offices on the first floor to be accessible to the public. Jensen prefers dorms on the main level, as well, but they are on the second floor. A traditional fire pole would be installed.

Q: Councilman Marklein, a homebuilder, suggested the department cut $1.5 million from the costs, noting his customers normally start with price ranges and options. Evansville in 2009 built a station for about $2.3 million, for example.

A: Most volunteer departments are metal buildings, Jensen said. The city's designer will look at different building materials as opposed to the masonry building now suggested.

“We're not going to get $1.5 million out of this project by taking off a few feet or a bay off the end,” Jensen said. “It has to be a significant change.”

Jensen noted the location is also a gateway to the downtown, something the council might want to consider when deciding the appearance of the building.

Q: The staff-preferred recommendation involves a home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What does the historic commission say about that?

A: Commission members said destroying or moving the home would be detrimental to the fabric of the historic district, said Gale Price, city liaison to the committee. Members are concerned about the scale of the proposed fire station versus the scale of the buildings designated as historical. They recommend the historic structure at the very least be moved.

Q: Can we sell the current station?

A: Minimal repairs would cost between $1.2 million to $2.2 million, Carl Weber, director of public works, said. Some structural problems with the building have been discovered, as well. Manufacturing uses might not be compatible with the neighborhood.

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