Conn. city looks to modernize existing firehouses

Fire Chief Raul Ortiz Mayor Erin Stewart are looking to map out a long-term plan for renovating some of the city’s six firehouses and, perhaps, even replacing two

Don Stacom
The Hartford Courant

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Sustained, heavy rains mean extra work for New Britain firefighters assigned to Station 1 on Beaver Street: When they’re done answering calls about flooded residential basements, they start pumping out the firehouse.

“We get a few inches of water in the basement, sometimes more," Chief Raul Ortiz said. “You see the paint is peeling down by the floor, we have to keep everything in storage up on pallets.”

“Many of our fire stations haven’t been updated since the 1970s,
“Many of our fire stations haven’t been updated since the 1970s," Mayor Erin Stewart said. “They’re very old, and the time has come.” (Photo/New Britain Fire Department)

Station 1 was has been the city’s fire headquarters since it was built in 1968, but decades of hard use and sometimes spotty maintenance have left it drafty and increasingly shabby. The basement has mold, and one bay in the garage isn’t structurally sound enough to hold more than an SUV.

Some of New Britain’s firehouses are in even worse shape, and Ortiz, the new chief, is looking to make improvements.

“Nobody is asking for the Taj Mahal or anything like that, believe me. But this is where firefighters live and work — they’re here for 24-hour shifts, so they eat and sleep here, too,” Ortiz said. “I ask people, ‘Would you live in your house this way?’ ”

Ortiz and Mayor Erin Stewart are looking to map out a long-term plan for renovating some of the city’s six firehouses and, perhaps, even replacing two. That could run more than $20 million, though. It isn’t something the city could even consider doing immediately, Stewart said, but the work can’t be put off indefinitely, either.

“Many of our fire stations haven’t been updated since the 1970s," she said. “They’re very old, and the time has come.”

Like many Northeast cities, New Britain has decades-old firehouses designed for a time when the job mostly amounted to traditional firefighting. Fire trucks are now larger and carry more equipment, such as gear for hazardous materials incidents as well as medical calls ranging from drug overdoses and traffic crashes to elderly residents with illnesses.

Storage space in the older fire stations is sharply limited, and there’s little room for training. The sleeping quarters were designed for an all-male fire department, so most of the buildings have group showers, a bathroom with several toilets and urinals and a single room for beds.

“We have five female firefighters now, and that number will increase,” Ortiz said.

The department has installed cubicle dividers and commanders at each station generally let female firefighters use the officer’s showers for privacy, but the longer-term solution should be a living area designed for the modern fire service, Ortiz said.

Among the most problematic firehouses is Station 1, which houses an engine, a ladder truck, the shift commander’s rapid response SUV, a fire investigation, a hazardous material truck and a small bus used as a mobile medical station. The larger trucks clear the garage opening with only three or four inches to spare.

Cracks in the garage floor are worsening under the daily pounding of fire service use, and basement flooding has become common.

“We had a situation about 15 years ago where the basement floor just heaved and broke in the middle,” said Deputy Chief Michael Berry. “The floor of our basement basically exploded.”

About six minutes away, Station 4 is about to turn 70 years old, and Station 8 on the other end of Corbin Avenue is a cramped brick building with deteriorated linoleum floors, mice in the walls and a narrow garage bay that just barely fits a medium-sized fire engine.

Ortiz praised Stewart and the common council leadership for touring the buildings to see firsthand why renovations are necessary. Over the next five years, he would like the city to put more than $23 million into new roofs and other repairs at several firehouses, replacement of Station 1 and Station 8, a major renovation of Station 4 and construction of a training facility.

“But this all costs money, New Britain is a distressed city. I know,” Ortiz said.

Stewart’s administration and the council have authorized $3 million in bonding to start some of the work, and the city has hired a consultant to list deficiencies at each firehouses.

“When I first took office, there were firefighters cooking on stoves that were 40 years old," Stewart said. "We’ve updated some of the kitchens, but the living quarters aren’t suitable to today’s fire department. What we need to do is a better assessment of what we need to do immediately and what we can piecemeal out over time.”


©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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