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Williamstown Fire District Presses Case for New Station
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:08AM / Thursday, April 28, 2022
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A slide shown on a Williamstown Fire District telecast shows the conditions at the current station, left, compared to how firefighters' turnout gear should be stored.


A slide shown on a Williamstown Fire District telecast lists some of the carcinogens that potentially seep into firefighters' equipment during a structure fire.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Firefighters face the risk of death every time they battle a blaze.
 
They should not be endangered at the firehouse.
 
That is the message the Williamstown Fire District is trying to spread as it moves toward a potential vote this year to bond a new fire station.
 
On Monday, two officials from the district's Building Committee and Fire Chief Craig Pedercini addressed the Select Board to talk about efforts to replace the aging, cramped facility on Water Street with a new station on a Main Street parcel the district acquired in 2017.
 
"The fire station does not meet OSHA requirements," Building Committee Chair Elaine Neeley said. "The working conditions there are dangerous to their health and well-being, and all you have to do is look at the way the engines are parked and figure out how the heck they're going to get their gear on, which is hung on the wall in the engine room and get on an engine and get to a fire in a reasonable time.
 
"It's a liability that we're not in compliance. If someone gets hurt, we're negligent. That's obvious, but wasn't obvious is the cancer risk and the lack of effective decontamination space and equipment."
 
The specter of liabilities due to an inadequate facility is familiar in public safety building discussions in town. It was one of the major arguments in favor of relocating the Williamstown Police Department from its former quarters at Town Hall to the new station on Simonds Road.
 
The police station was a town project — conceived by the then town manager under the supervision of the select board.
 
The fire district is a separate governmental entity apart from town government — governed by its five-person Prudential Committee and answerable to residents who are eligible to participate in the district's annual meeting, generally held one week after the May annual town meeting.
 
Recognizing the need to generate broad political support ahead of a bond exclusion vote, the fire district used the platform afforded by Monday's Select Board meeting to reach constituents who may not be aware of the deficiencies in the current station.
 
As Neely noted, the most obvious is space.
 
The Water Street facility was built in 1950, when it was adequately sized for the fire trucks of the day. Those trucks have only gotten larger.
 
"The fire engine now is a mini fire station on wheels," said Robert Mitchell, a designer hired by the Williamstown Fire District.
 
He made the analogy during the telecast, "The Modern Fire Station: What's Included," a 45-minute production on Willinet, the town's community access television station.
 
Select Board Chair Andy Hogeland on Monday recommended that viewers of the meeting also look at "The Modern Fire Station" to understand the difficulties posed by the current fire station and how they could be addressed in a new building.
 
As Neely mentioned, a big failing of the current facility is no adequate equipment to clean the turnout and clothing that firefighters wear while extinguishing structure fires.
 
In the telecast, Mitchell, a nationally-recognized designer based in Voorheesville, N.Y., explains that building materials and furnishings have changed dramatically since the middle of the 20th century, when the current station was built.
 
"The materials now are not predominantly wood and wool and cotton," Mitchell said. "They're whatever was brought on a cargo container and sold by Ikea."
 
The resulting threat to firefighters comes when the carcinogenic materials in a modern home burn and the smoke seeps into the firefighter's clothing and, eventually, into his or her skin.
 
In the 1950s, firefighters would bring their turnout gear home and be responsible for laundering their own clothing. Given the harmful chemicals that leach into that material, it needs to be safely cleaned at the station in equipment that the WFD neither owns nor has room to install.
 
"Most all existing stations do not have a proper place to clean breathing apparatus," Mitchell says in the Willinet production. "In Williamstown, it's cleaned in a kitchen sink."
 
Other deficiencies in the current station include the lack of space for training or sleeping areas for firefighters.
 
"In some regards, [training] is the most important thing that is done," Mitchell said. "Your neighbors who go out and fight fires on your behalf, luckily, don't have as many fires to respond to as they do in Philadelphia. So they need to train to make sure they're safe and effective. It benefits them to be safe, benefits the community to be safe and benefits the person they're trying to help."
 
As for bunk spaces, they may not be needed with the current setup of the Williamstown Fire District as a call-volunteer department. But a national decline in volunteerism is leading more and more communities to need full-time firefighters on staff, Mitchell argued. Someday, the Williamstown department may give in to that trend and need a place where firefighters can sleep while in the station.
 
At the same time, he argues in "The Modern Fire Station" that by building a station that both allows for adequate training and creates esprit de corps, the Williamstown Fire District could attract and retain volunteers, putting off the day when it will need those full-time firefighters.
 
"If you lose the ability to have volunteers, you'll be looking at significant costs," Mitchell says in the Willinet production. "It's $90,000 to $100,000 in salaries and benefits, typically [for a full-time firefighter]. That payment will pay for a little less than $2 million of the mortgage to support a new building."
 
The district does not know how much money it will need to borrow to build a new station. On Monday, Mitchell said a recently retained estimator will begin running the numbers "shortly," in advance of the planned autumn vote.
 
But in addition to potentially helping to save on long-term costs by retaining volunteers, forward motion on the building project sooner rather than later will have another financial benefit, according to Mitchell.
 
"The cost of this construction escalates faster than other kinds," he said. "From 2015 to 2021, [the increase] averaged 4.1 percent per annum. And in the last year, it's been higher.
 
"The sooner you do it, the better. I know this project was looked at in 2008. The cost to do it was half of what it is now."
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