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Estcada Fire: Is now the right time?

$5.6 million bond proposed to replace 48-year-old station
by: Jeff Spiegel, The current fire station, which is just under 10,000 square feet, was built in 1964.

The question of whether voters should approve a bond measure to build a new fire station raised serious debate recently during town hall meetings.

Specifically, voters within the Estacada Rural Fire District are being asked to approve a $5.6 million bond measure.

On one side of the aisle sit the fire department supporters, who point to an outdated and decrepit station as evidence that now is the time to build.

On the other side of the aisle are people, such as Estacada's Kay Nelson, who question whether this is a good decision.

'I question why a community our size needs a $5.6 million fire station,' Nelson said at a the Monday, April 23, community meeting.

With 30 people in attendance, Monday's meeting was organized by a group of people asking voters to defeat the upcoming bond measure.

Of the 30, however, it appeared as if more than half of those in attendance were prepared to vote in favor of the new station.

Estacada Rural Fire Station

Built in 1964, the current Estacada Fire Station was designed to handle a load of 100 fire calls a year, none of which were medical calls.

Fast forward 48 years: The station now handles 1,200 calls annually that include fire, rescue and medical calls.

The building, which is just under 10,000 square feet, was originally designed with the idea of expansion in mind. The goal was to build a second story when the station needed to expand, but modern building codes have rendered that idea impossible.

While a few citizens at Monday's meeting pushed the fire station to consider alternative means of expansion, Michael Huret of the Estacada Firefighters Political Action Committee, explained that just wasn't a viable option.

The only way to expand the building without building a new one would be to retrofit the old building in order to get up to code and be able to handle tremors.

The difference in cost between a new facility and a retrofitted old facility was miniscule. And a retrofitted building wouldn't offer additional space.

Regardless of where people fall on the issue, however, one thing that seemingly everyone can agree on is that the current station is just too small.

At the moment, the station supports 15 fire corps members, 11 career firefighters and 40 volunteers. With all of those people, the station has just one shower and two toilets.

With a sleeping facility that was added since 1964, the station can sleep six people, but there aren't separate bathrooms or sleeping areas for female firefighters, except for a curtained off bunk in the sleeping room.

Because of the limited sleeping area, some firefighters are forced to spend the night sleeping in recliners.

The proposed facility, on the other hand, is more than double the size of the old one at 26,150 square feet.

More problems

While the issue of sleeping areas and accommodations for men and women are among the chief concerns, a quick tour of the fire station reveals bigger problems.

As soon as you walk into the front door of the station, you're greeted by the station's current medical treatment room. While the room is properly supplied, the hallway and doorway are so narrow that if someone needs to be transported from the fire station to the hospital in an ambulance, a gurney can't travel from the medical treatment room to the ambulance. As a result, any patient would need to walk out of the treatment room in order to reach the ambulance.

As you walk deeper into the fire station, cracks are visible on the walls. The cracks require firefighters to scrape and repaint the walls on an annual basis.

In the garage, Deputy Chief Fred Hertel points out the decontamination station the station uses after every call.

'There is only one decontamination sink in the whole place, and it is also used as a cleaning sink and the auto shop sink,' he said. 'The garage is also where we have to keep our breathing air machine, which puts us at risk because it's in the same room as all of the engine exhaust.'

Also in the garage, the trucks are parked about as tight as they could possibly fit. Between rigs there isn't more than 4 feet of space, meaning most of the engines can't have doors opened all the way without hitting the garage walls or another truck.

Hertel, who has been in Estacada as a career firefighter since July 2004, has been in the fire service 25 years and said this was the most cramped he has ever been.

'The volunteer station in North Plains I was at was built the same time this one was, but that was replaced 20 years ago,' Hertel said. 'And in Baker, we had a similar facility but have a much smaller staff and budget than we do, but theirs has been retrofitted several times.

'The cramping just has a ripple effect through the whole organization,' he said. 'Every aspect that you look at could be more efficient.'

Questions remain

Despite the establishment of the department's need for better facilities, the question on doubters' minds remains two-fold:

n Why propose this bond now during such a tough economy; and,

n Could the department continue to provide excellent service if a new station isn't funded?

For Huret, the question of whether now is the best time remains frustrating.

'The fire department outgrew that facility 15 years ago and ever since then, every four to six years, there has been a measure to build a new station,' he said. 'We can't wait any longer. The plumbing and wiring are shot, the roof needs replacing and the walls are busting.

'We've heard it's not the time for 15 years. When is it going to be the good time?'

He also points to the financial incentives provided to do a job like this in such a down economy.

'The building is cheap and the financing is cheap right now,' Huret said. 'In 2008, they asked for less money and it was going to cost 49 cents per $1,000 of property value, and now we're going for 39 cents per $1,000. In 2008, bonds were about 6.5 percent interest and now we're looking at an estimated 3.5 percent.'

While many people remain concerned about the project going over budget, Huret assures them that there are safeguards in place that should prevent that from happening. In addition to a reserve fund and a contingency fund, he also mentioned that if the project were approved, the district could begin applying for grants to help pay off the bond.

One such grant would be for a meeting room, which is included in the design, and could be worth as much as $250,000 if the district were awarded the money.

'We have reasonable expectation that we could get something to offset the cost for that room and that's the kind of thing that would pay it down sooner,' Huret said. 'If everyone pays their taxes, that will also help to pay it off sooner.'

In regard to the second question about whether the station has been able to perform the necessary duties despite the current conditions, the answer is yes. With a dedicated group of volunteers, the station has never failed to answer a call in a timely manner; however, there have been times when it was close.

One volunteer at the Monday night meeting noted that in most cases, the station is never asked to handle more than two calls at a time, something they are capable of doing with the number of firefighters typically at the station. The problem arises, however, in the rare instances in which three calls need to be responded to at once - leaving Estacada to call for help all the way from Clackamas or Boring.

The issue here, however, is not an equipment issue but a personnel issue, compounded by the current condition of the station.

'We're losing local volunteers,' Huret said. 'There are currently 16 of us who live in the district and 12 years ago there were 30.'

Huret, like some other volunteers, refuses to sleep at the station due to the cramped conditions, lack of bathroom facilities and lack of personal storage space. A new station, however, could attract more volunteers and therefore, provide the station the personnel needed to respond to more than two calls at a time.

'It's a vital piece of being able to recruit somebody, and as a volunteer, everything at the station is a hassle for me,' he said. 'With the new station, I can tell you right now, I'd go back to sleeping there.'

While the level of involvement varies, a volunteer like Huret puts in 1,000 hours a year at the station, and the only compensation he receives is a fuel stipend and a uniform.

Among other upgrades the proposed station would include an area for sheriff's deputies, an area for EMTs and a community meeting room.

'We can't wait any longer,' Huret said. 'For a fire station, it doesn't meet what people expect. Yes, it's safe for a building, but for a primary response unit in this day and age? No.

'It's time right now.'

The election will take place May 15.



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