Brunswick money pit: Chief urges overdue replacement of Central Fire Station

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BRUNSWICK — The fire chief wants the town to consider replacing the 97-year-old Central Fire Station – plans for which have been in the town’s capital improvement plan for more than a decade.

The request to the Finance Committee prompted town councilor to wonder aloud why the project has “been bumped and bumped and bumped.”

At a Dec. 1 workshop, Chief Ken Brillant listed several maintenance problems in need of immediate repair at the 21 Town Hall Place building, including cracks in the first-floor bays where equipment is parked. The cracks allow water and moisture to leak into the basement, where firefights exercise and eat meals.

Brillant’s presentation followed a memo he sent to the town manager Nov. 7, when he argued that routine maintenance and repairs won’t resolve the larger issues that make the station inadequate.

“There are many issues with the building and, for nearly 20 years, the town has recognized the need to plan for its replacement,” Brillant wrote.

Back when the floor was designed “they had horses in here,” he said in an interview Monday. The floor was replaced three times between 1963 and 1994.

Today, the concrete floor bears the weight of six emergency vehicles, which have difficulty passing through the station’s narrow doors and are housed like sardines in the cramped station, leaving inadequate room for cleaning and maintenance. 

Brillant enumerated problems both large and small. He pointed to areas where the building is not up to health, safety, and accessibility codes, has leaks, or where public safety staff are pressed for storage space. 

The floor tiles in Brillant’s office are warped from a leak in the ceiling caused by  deterioration in the outer parapet wall that he temporary fixed last December with money from the department’s operating budget. The parapet wall is on his list of urgent repairs, and could cost up to $60,000.

If the town built a modernized, larger station, Brillant said he would reorganize equipment between the existing station and the substation at Cooks Corner. Right now, Central Station is also too small to house the department’s tower engine, which is kept at Cook’s Corner.

Brilliant concluded at the Dec. 1 workshop that the central station is “not really adequate for fire service operations” – a conclusion that wasn’t entirely news.

“I remember that this project has come up year after year after year, and this project has been bumped and bumped and bumped,” Councilor Jane Millett said after Brillant’s presentation. “So what’s the history there? Why does it keep getting bumped?”

“You did other projects in the meantime,” Town Manager John Eldridge responded, referring to council decisions extending back a decade or more.

Eldridge said on Tuesday that the problems at Central Station have been in the capital improvement plan for about 15 years, and “there was a pretty concerted effort to replace the building between 2000 and 2003.”

In 2002, the town commissioned Mitchell-Ross Associates to look into a location for a new station on Pleasant Street. That idea later evolved into a public safety building that would combine police and fire services, but Eldridge said with a price tag of up to $10 million, the proposal failed at referendum.

Around that time, the town also explored a regionalization option with neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, other capital projects and town developments took priority and delayed action on a new station, Eldridge said. The town built a Pleasant Street police station in 2013 instead of the proposed public safety building. Eldridge noted that the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station – announced in 2005 and closed in 2011 – also diverted the town’s attention.

But there was also some progress. In 2006, the town built the Emerson substation at Cooks Corner for just over $2 million, which Brillant said reduced response times to service calls in the eastern part of town.

“But we still have issues at Central Station,” he said Monday.

“The repairs need to happen,” Eldridge added Tuesday, although he declined to discuss a time line for a new building.

Renovating the existing Central Station is not entirely off the table, he said, citing a study that indicated there is little space downtown to house a new building.

But in his memo to the finance committee, Brillant referenced a conclusion from the Mitchell-Ross report that said “renovation of the building was not likely to be cost-effective” given the major size, compliance, and space deficiencies.

Brillant said the town should consider building a new station on the Pleasant Street corridor, which would keep it centrally located. He and Elridge both remarked that building a third substation would be cost-prohibitive.

Town Councilor Alison Harris remarked at the committee meeting that “It’s just a matter of when we can wrap our arms around the fact that this is an obsolete station and we’re throwing good money after bad.”

Either way, the solution will require a major capital investment that is set to compete with another major project on the council’s plate: the possibility of a new, locally funded elementary school that could cost as much at $33.6 million.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Fire Chief Ken Brillant stands in the narrow stairwell of Brunswick’s Central Fire Station, which does not meet building codes.

Brunswick’s fire chief has asked the town to replace Central Fire Station, which is almost 100 years old and functionally obsolete. The building is at 21 Town Hall Place, between Maine and Pleasant streets.

Chief Ken Brillant pointed out Monday how cracks and deteriorating laminate flooring on the apparatus floor of Brunswick’s Central Fire Station allow water to leak into the basement.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.
  • Chew H Bird

    If Brunswick residents need to make a choice between a new school and adequate fire protection, there is no contest. In the case of a fire, people die, (including children). The fire department is mission critical to all residents of Brunswick, (and sometimes to neighboring communities) in regards to immediate life and death situations. Economic realities require intelligent choices and common sense.

  • Weary of the right wing

    Eldridge will find a way to bury this, like he has for the past 10 years.