By Rita Savard
CHELMSFORD, Mass. — When disaster strikes, firefighters rush in to save lives.
Looking around the crumbling and cracked Center Fire Station, Town Manager Paul Cohen said it's time Chelmsford answers a call for help from firefighters.
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Since 2003, the station's eroding floor has been supported by a room full of shoring that firefighters squeeze through to access their lockers. Above their heads, a wide net catches pieces of cement flaking off the ceiling.
"Every six months we have to have engineers inspect the building to ensure the safety of the people working there," he said. "Band-Aid solutions, like sealing the floor, aren't going to last forever."
Voters rejected a proposal for a new $12 million station in 2009. Now officials hope a scaled-back plan for $9.1 million will change minds on April 5.
Supporters say building a new headquarters has come down to matter of public safety for the town's firefighters. Residents railing against the ballot question say the pricetag and the location remain problematic.
The proposed station would sit on town-owned land at the corner of Chelmsford and Wilson streets, which is now the home of two softball fields. Officials have said those games will be moved to other fields in town.
Some have voiced concerns about moving the recreational area, which has also doubled as a free community ice-skating rink this winter.
"I do think the town needs a new fire station, but I don't understand why it can't stay at the current site," said resident Ed Petros. "Seeing kids play on the ballfields on Chelmsford Street is a nice welcome when driving into town."
But officials say the North Road site has been studied and cannot support the size required for a modern station that needs to house equipment and provide an adequate training facility for firefighters.
Built in 1952, Center Station was designed to serve a population of 10,000. Since then the town has grown to about 33,000 residents with the Fire Department responding annually to about 5,000 calls.
Before eyeing the site at Chelmsford and Wilson streets, it was the No. 1 recommended location from an independent study group, said Permanent Building Committee Co-chairman Pat Maloney.
In 2007, the town paid Brookline-based MMA Consulting Group Inc. $85,000 to assess all possible locations for a new fire station headquarters. To meet emergency-response time requirements, no more than four minutes per call, Chelmsford must have a station in town center, the study stated. Some of the most frequent emergency calls come from elderly housing and assisted living facilities near the center.
For size, traffic patterns and ease of accessibility, the corner of Chelmsford and Wilson streets was viewed as the best location. The consulting group also cited the North Road location as excellent in terms of meeting emergency response times.
After voters said no to the proposal in 2009, planners scaled down the building from 27,000 square feet to 19,000 square feet, with four garage bays instead of five. The project has significantly reduced administrative space but still incorporates required building and energy codes.
"You really can't go any smaller and still house all of the department's equipment," Maloney said.
Chelmsford resident Carole Hanley said she was out of work for more than a year before finding a job again. Although she supports a new fire station, she said a lot of people in town are still feeling the effects of the economy and might not be able to afford the station.
"We've been told our taxes won't increase that much," she said. "I felt like I couldn't afford it in 2009. I can afford it now but I know other people who are still out of work. Many people in Chelmsford are still struggling, so I think a new department is going to be a tough sell."
Funded as a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion, building a new fire station will bring a temporary tax increase that phases out as the loan is paid back, Cohen said.
If the project is approved, the excluded debt-service portion of the property-tax bill for the average single-family home assessed for $325,000 is projected to increase by $7 for the next fiscal year. The excluded debt service would increase by $13 for the following fiscal year, then decline.
Fire Chief Michael Curran said firefighters will continue to provide the town with the best service possible, regardless of the vote.
"But it would be nice to go to work without having to worry about where to park the trucks," he said.
In 2009, Methuen-based Daigle Engineers Inc. warned firefighters to park trucks with caution after finding several large sections of delaminated concrete, corroded steel beams and shrunken timber shores. The floor above the locker room was in danger of collapsing.
For about $40,000, the Fire Department put a protective sealant over the floor to prevent further erosion. That is just a temporary fix, Cohen said, pointing out cracks in the building's foundation and walls.
"Money is always an issue for people struggling to pay bills, but the longer we wait, the cost of construction will only climb higher," Cohen said. "This is a long-term investment for the town that would last 50 years, like the current station did."
Residents are invited to tour the station during an open house from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The town election is Tuesday, April 5.
"It would be nice to go to work without having to worry about where to park the trucks." Chelmsford Fire Chief Michael Curran Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site.
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