Landmark Falmouth fire station may close
FALMOUTH — Frugality may trump sentiment this year as the town once again discusses whether to close the Pleasant Hill Fire Station on Allen Avenue Extension.
More than 450 invitations went out from the town to the station's neighbors, inviting them to Town Hall for a public hearing and presentation Monday night by Fire Chief Howard Rice Jr.
The 200-year-old building was home to the Union Dance Hall before being donated to the town for a fire station in 1935.
Currently housing only Engine 3 and a 1923 REO Speed Wagon, the station is in need of nearly $200,000 worth of repairs and upgrades that range from new heating and septic systems to new sprinkler and engine exhaust systems. In addition, Engine 3 is slated for a $500,000 replacement in 2013.
One of four fire stations in town, Pleasant Hill is never staffed and responds to an average of only two serious calls per year, Rice said Tuesday. If the station were shut, savings would be about $47,500 per year. Portland's ladder company at Northgate Shopping Center, a mile away, would respond to calls from the Pleasant Hill area, he said.
"Closing the station is not going to jeopardize residents' safety," Rice said. "The analysis shows we can pull the station and it will not have a detrimental effect on the community."
There are 10 fire stations within a four-mile radius of Station 3, and four of those within a 2.5-mile radius. Seven are staffed with career firefighters, Rice said. And by availing itself of Northgate's staffed facility, which is equipped with the manpower to answer a call immediately, the town would see little or no difference in response time, he said.
"When apparatus arrives on the scene you need a minimum of four people to start working safely; that (Engine 3) truck responds with just one person a lot," he said. "There's more than just getting a truck there – it's getting a crew there."
Though many brought up safety concerns during Monday's meeting, it wasn't the only topic debated regarding the station; the suggestion to close it elicited many objections because of public attachment to its heritage.
"There is a value in a volunteer fire department that has to do with community ... knowing these people are working together," Sally Barrows, of Ledgewood Drive, said. "We are living in a time when community is undone in old ways and trying to be put back together in new ways. We have to consider that value."
While the town could "probably get by," former Engine 3 member David Murray of Allen Avenue Extension said, residents would "lose a sense of community" and could lose some of the volunteers, as well.
But Rice said Tuesday that he didn't anticipate a big impact on volunteers. Of the 10 who are active at Pleasant Hill, four live in the immediate area, one lives in West Falmouth, one lives in Yarmouth and four are from Portland. They would still be able to volunteer through the remaining stations that include Foreside Station on Foreside Road, Central Station on Bucknam Road and West Falmouth Station on Winn Road.
"Closing the station doesn't mean we'd lose volunteers," he said.
Though a few people expressed concerns that eliminating the station would cause a hike in their insurance rates, Rice said from his conversation with the Insurance Service Organization, the rating would not go up.
The town's equipment and number of stations compare favorably with those of other communities, according to Rice. Among Falmouth, Yarmouth, Freeport, Cumberland and Windham, only Windham, at 46 square miles and with a population of more than 15,000, has as many stations as Falmouth; Cumberland and Yarmouth have two and Freeport has one. Windham is also the only other community to have four engines; Yarmouth has three; Cumberland and Freeport have two.
The town budget that will be presented to the public at a meeting later this month currently includes savings realized by closing the station, Town Manager Nathan Poore said. It also includes $90,000 to expand the per-diem firefighter/paramedic program to cover nights from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at Central Station. Because the coverage would take the place of a $60,000 regional paramedic partnership with Cumberland, the new position's net increase to the town would be $30,000.
As part of their budgeting process, before making the decision to close the station, councilors agreed to give the public another chance to speak about the Pleasant Hill station.
"Being the third generation of volunteer fire fighters, I feel for the members who are upset by losing their (station) home," Rice said. "It's an emotional topic for a lot of people... I had to put emotions aside and just focus on facts and history."