Fire companies balance need for new station, costs

Firefighters don’t just fight fires.

Firefighters don’t just fight fires.

They also extricate the injured, wash spilled gasoline and provide other services at accident scenes. They respond to emergencies like natural gas leaks, to home carbon monoxide alarms, and to electrical wires down, whether from storm or accident.

The number of fire alarms in suburban communities across the region is rising year by year, putting new stress on suburban firefighters, almost all of whom are volunteers.

Call growth is especially notable in Saratoga County, where the population has tripled since World War II.

In some cases, firefighters are looking at their growing activity and the aging facilities they respond from and seeing justification for new fire stations — even as they increasingly try to keep in mind the pocketbook concerns of the residents who must pay.

Voters have often turned down expensive new stations at public referendums, as residents have three times in the last six years in the rural Charlton Fire District (before district treasurer Virginia DeCapria was accused of embezzling $500,000).

But some growing fire districts in larger suburbs have been going back to voters with scaled-down building projects, and sometimes succeeding with voters.

Fire districts in Wilton and Niskayuna are building new stations, while fire officials in Jonesville and Malta look at what can be done to replace aging stations and meet growing needs.

Alarm call volumes are rising generally, said Saratoga County Fire Coordinator Ed Tremblay.

“It’s population growth, and not just the local population growth, but the number of people commuting and accidents,” he said. “The call volume is increasing all around, and it’s only going to get worse, with GlobalFoundries coming in and Malta becoming a hub.”

old system

Major firefighting expenses like new stations and fire apparatus are paid for by local fire district taxpayers, under a decentralized statewide fire protection system dating from the early 20th century.

The system, which has resulted in 862 fire districts statewide, is based on each hamlet funding and staffing its own volunteer fire company.

Often, though, nearly a century later those hamlets are surrounded by — and providing emergency services for — enormous post-Northway residential subdivisions, and accompanying malls and shopping plazas.

Its decentralized nature means Clifton Park residents, for example, get fire protection through six different volunteer fire companies, depending on where they live. Together, they cost town taxpayers about $2.8 million per year. The money is collected on the town tax bill each January, though fire district commissioners, not town officials, control the budgets.

Clifton Park Town Supervisor Philip C. Barrett said he doesn’t hear complaints about the cost — and he praised firefighters for their handling of local emergency calls, especially during natural disasters like the 2008 ice storm and Hurricane Irene in August.

“In general, they do a fantastic job and accomplish the mission in a cost-effective manner,” Barrett said.

The Jonesville Fire Department, with a $1.1 million budget, is Clifton Park’s largest. While nearly all the firefighters are volunteers, there are paid “station-keepers” who can staff trucks, and paid office staff. The district also spends $500,0000 each year to finance, maintain and operate its fire apparatus. The department this year has been responding to an average of 2.5 calls per day.

“When I joined the department [14 years ago] we had 600 calls per year. Now it’s 900,” said Jim Miller, chairman of the Jonesville fire commissioners. “Everything is increasing.”

Jonesville officials hope to go to voters next year with plans to finance a new firehouse, replacing what they say is an aging station on Route 146A.

They’re well aware voters there rejected $4 million and then $3.5 million building plans, in separate referenda in 2006.

The fire commissioners have learned plans need to be scaled back, Miller said.

“I don’t see us coming back with another $4 million project,” he said. “The only thing I tell people is to look at what we need, not what we want.”

The 37-year-old Route 146A station is one of two operated by Jonesville. The other is miles away, in the hamlet of Jonesville.


The district covers the entire northern part of Clifton Park, where many of the town’s largest subdivisions have been built; the district protects roughly $900 million in property.

Residential growth is also behind the Wilton Fire Department’s current construction of a second fire station. The $2.5 million building is going up on Route 50, between Edie and King roads.

The station will give Wilton firefighters a base on the east side of the Northway. The Northway and railroad tracks that also divide the town are potential barriers between the current station on Ballard Road and the eastern side of town, fire officials said.

“It’s seven miles to the end of our district,” said John Liptak, chairman of the board of fire commissioners. “This new station will probably save us five miles.”

The district worked with an architect from C.T. Male Associates of Latham to design an inexpensive building. It has a wood frame, Liptak said, but still meets public safety durability standards.

The new station will also be closer to the homes of some volunteers, allowing for faster response times when an alarm comes in.

“This isn’t sudden. We’ve been planning this for 30 years,” Liptak said.

Wilton, one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, has grown from 10,000 people in 1990 to more than 16,000 today.

But in addition to locally generated emergency calls, Liptak said Wilton frequently must respond to accidents on the Northway.

In Schenectady County, Niskayuna Fire District No. 1 is also building a new station. It is doing a $4.3 million renovation and addition to its main station on Balltown Road.

District voters rejected a $6.1 million project in 2006, but then approved a $4.8 million bond last year, after costs were lowered, and concerned residents sought and received assurances that the historic character of the old building would be maintained.

Niskayuna No. 1 Fire Chief Dale Lingenfelter said costs could be reduced because a change in the state building code allowed additions on firehouses without having to bring the older sections of the building up to modern codes.

The current station, built in 1937 with additions in 1947 and 1967, simply isn’t big enough to house modern fire apparatus, Lingenfelter said.

By its nature, fire station construction is expensive, he said.

“It’s an essential services building. It’s built to a higher standard. It has to meet seismic standards, be able to withstand a hurricane,” he said.

Niskayuna No. 1 responded to 1,767 alarms in 2010.

“The call volume has been increasing fairly steadily for as long as I’ve been here,” said Lingenfelter, who has been with the department 25 years.

some get paid

Niskayuna No. 1, with a $3 million budget, has a blend of career and volunteer firefighters who work side by side. It’s an unusual arrangement, but something Lingenfelter expects to become more common because of the time and training demands placed on firefighting volunteers.

In Malta, meanwhile, the Round Lake and Malta Ridge fire companies are preparing for a surge of activity due to the arrival of the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant in Luther Forest.

GlobalFoundries itself isn’t expected to generate a lot of calls, but increased traffic and other growth that comes with it will, fire officials believe.

“With increased people comes increases incidents. The perception of people is this is what they pay taxes for, and you’re expected to be there,” said Richard Jennings, president of the all-volunteer Malta Ridge Fire Co., which serves the northern part of Malta. “The expectation, even with a volunteer organization, is that you’ll be there full time.”

Because the Malta Ridge and Round Lake main stations are currently at the edge of town, a town-funded study in 2009 recommended construction of a central fire station the two companies would share.

Interest has focused on building a shared station on four acres of town-owned land on Dunning Street, near downtown. But the plan has been opposed by some residents of the adjacent Luther Forest housing development, already upset that downtown development has cleared what was once woods behind their homes.

The town has appraised the property at $500,000, and indicated the fire companies would need to buy it for that price. The property was donated to the town by Luther Forest’s developer.

Fred Sievers, president of the Round Lake Hose Co., said he thinks things will eventually be resolved in favor of a new station.

“The concept itself is a very, very good positive step for the town of Malta,” Sievers said. “It will enhance the operational efficiency of both departments.”

The kind of calls Malta will see in the future will become more complex, said Sievers, who has said he can foresee the day when local fire companies will need paid professional firefighters.

Categories: Schenectady County

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