Firefighter training center approved in Minn.

The training center will cost $6 million and span 5 acres

By Jim Anderson
The Star Tribune

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. — A facility to help east metro emergency workers improve skills won last-minute funding.

Almost lost in the angst and rancor leading to last month's state budget compromise was approval of a $500 million bonding bill — a bill that includes $3 million for a firefighter training center in Maplewood that will serve Washington and Ramsey counties.

The need for such a facility has been clear for a long time, said Steve Lukin, Maplewood fire chief, who helped lead the push for funding.

"We just don't have old houses to burn like we used to," he said.

Police and fire chiefs in the east metro have been clamoring for such a training center for several years. A state Department of Public Safety study also affirmed the need for an up-to-date training center in the east metro like the one in Minneapolis that serves the western Twin Cities.

"We are trying to make this as close to Minneapolis' as we possibly can," Lukin said.

The training center will be built on a 12-acre piece of land now owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) at the junction of Hwy. 5 and Century Avenue N., near Hill-Murray School. It's an ideal site at the border of Ramsey and Washington counties, centrally located in the area it will serve, Lukin said.

The total cost of the center — which will offer training to firefighters, paramedics and police officers — is estimated at $6 million, including the land donation from MnDOT, Lukin said. Departments that use the center will sign a joint powers agreement to share the costs, and Ramsey County is contributing a $450,000 grant.

Students at nearby Century College, which has nationally recognized training programs for aspiring law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers, will also be able to take advantage of the center and help pay for it, Lukin said.

The training center is designed to replicate any situation emergency workers are likely to encounter. The design takes up 5 acres, allowing for expansion, and will include:

  • A main building with a large space that can hold more than 100 people for classroom instruction and meetings; a break room; lockers and showers.
  • A "confined space" training area that simulates rescues from things like grain bins or abandoned wells and debris piles.
  • A trench training area where rescuers will practice saving people who have been buried in construction accidents.
  • A seven-story burn tower that replicates situations encountered with high-rise buildings, like dealing with smoke-filled stairwells and rescuing people from upper floors.
  • A two-story concrete building with a two-car attached garage to simulate fires at a typical residence. With different controls, almost any situation firefighters would face at a house fire can be safely re-created.
  • A training pond where divers can hone their skills in saving drowning victims or practice dowsing boat fires.
  • A driving track surrounding the entire training area so firefighters can get their needed certification or practice handling the big rigs.

St. Paul also has a fire training center on Energy Park Drive near Como Park, but it presents logistical problems as far as traveling and allowing for large numbers of people to train at the same time, Lukin said. The new center, targeted to open in 2013, will make training more efficient and effective.

Funding for the center was included in the 2010 bonding bill but was among dozens of projects vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"Gov. Dayton had always wanted a bonding bill, and in the special session it was part of the deal," said state Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood. The training center was shovel-ready and already approved in 2010, she said, which, combined with the need, gave it an advantage over other projects.

"This was a very worthy project for a bonding bill," Slawik said.

Bonding bills normally are passed every other year. But this legislative session was anything but normal. Lukin was preparing for another round of trips to the State Capitol in 2012 when he and other advocates got word that the money included in the bonding bill passed during the special session.

"This was just a surprise to us that we even got it," he said. After last year's disappointment, "we didn't think this was ever going to happen."

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