On Monday evening, October 24th, at the regular City Council meeting which starts at 6:30 p.m. the Council will hear from residents who would like to comment on plans for a new firehouse for the City of University City.
Much has been written about this proposed firehouse. I would like to provide you with the information I’ve used to come to my decision to support the construction of this new facility. There’s a lot to share, so I ask for your patience.
First, a bit of history.
In 2009, former City Manager Julie Feier and her staff submitted an application for funding for a new firehouse – requesting funds that were being made available as part of the federal stimulus program. The application was to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.) The application for the grant was submitted in July of 2009 and approved by the previous City Council in August of 2009. That application included a $200,000 local match to the more than $3 million grant request.
In September of 2009 University City received notification that it would be receiving the grant, but at a level of about $500,000 less than requested. Council was advised of the shortfall. In January of 2010 the City Council approved a contract with the architect – to the tune of $343,000 – which included the architect’s fee; consultants’ fees, and the fee for a project manager.
A reminder: Five members of the current Council were on the Council that accepted this grant. Councilmembers Price, Ricci, Crow, Glickert and Sharpe were on the Council in 2009/2010. Councilmember Kraft and I are the newcomers to this discussion.
NEED FOR A NEW FIRE STATION:
In the grant application to FEMA a number of points were made about the current firehouse to support the building of a new facility. Some of those points are noted below:
- The current firehouse #1 was built in 1906. It was formerly used as the printing plant for a publishing company. It lacks many of the standard safety features found in a fire station or any other public facility.
- Many areas lack a required second means of egress: most of the electrical system is outdated and in some cases, equipment and systems are no longer allowed under the National Electric Code (NFPA 70).
- The firehouse lacks the room or ability to separate many functions that directly impact firefighter safety and health such as laundry facilities, breathing air compressor for self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA’s) and equipment servicing and maintenance. These are all currently in the engine bays. Recommended standards are that these functions be in separate rooms/areas.
- The current station has damaged from years of water intrusion in the basement, foundation and roof. Evidence of water infiltration is found in almost every room or space. Most of the mold and mildew has been remediated, though continued water infiltration in inhabitable spaces provides an environment that is conducive to the future growth of mold and mildew.
- Some of the HVAC equipment shows significant signs of wear and age and lacks modern control capability.
- Exterior tuck pointing shows significant signs of deterioration despite evidence of previous and recent repair.
- Two pieces of apparatus share a single overhead door and must therefore be maneuvered into and out of the station using an angular approach. This creates a greater potential for a mishap than the usual straight line approach found in modern fire stations.
- Privacy concerns for employees are not addressed in the current facility. A large open bunk room and two upstairs restrooms are utilized by all, with no separate sleeping or restroom facilities for the male and female firefighters.
- The present facility has no training room with modern day equipment or media access to provide crew training in-house.
- The current firehouse does not comply with Americans With Disabilities Act.
- The current firehouse has the police gun range as part of a shared basement with potential lead and sound exposure. The gun range is directly behind kitchen.
We cannot, or should not, locate fire stations just anywhere. Fire stations should be located where we can retain our ISO rating – so that fire insurance rates do not go up throughout the City. This new location would put firehouse #1 closer to the center of the community and would allow us to retain our high ISO rating. I’ve included some information on the ISO rating below from the ISO Mitigation On-line website at http://www.isomitigation.com/ppc/0000/ppc0001.html.
ISO’s Public Protection Classification (PPC™) Program
To help establish appropriate fire insurance premiums for residential and commercial properties, insurance companies need reliable, up-to-date information about a community’s fire-protection services. ISO provides that information through the Public Protection Classification (PPC™) program.
What is the PPC program?
ISO collects information on municipal fire-protection efforts in communities throughout the United States. In each of those communities, ISO analyzes the relevant data using our Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). We then assign a Public Protection Classification from 1 to 10. Class 1 generally represents superior property fire protection, and Class 10 indicates that the area’s fire-suppression program doesn’t meet ISO’s minimum criteria.
By classifying communities’ ability to suppress fires, ISO helps the communities evaluate their public fire-protection services. The program provides an objective, countrywide standard that helps fire departments in planning and budgeting for facilities, equipment, and training. And by securing lower fire insurance premiums for communities with better public protection, the PPC program provides incentives and rewards for communities that choose to improve their firefighting services.
Some have questioned the location of the new firehouse (at Vernon and Westgate on land donated to the City by Washington University) because of flooding problems. It is true that Vernon does sometime flood during a big rain. But that flooding is caused by the sewers – either by clogged sewers, or sewers that are not sized correctly for this area. Staff is working on this issue with the Metropolitan Saint Louis Sewer District (MSD.)
It’s been said that the River des Peres (RdP) is causing the flooding. True – the River des Peres does flow under Vernon. But the river is tunneled at that location, and has been for more than sixty years. The water that appears in the street is not water from the RdP but from rains that cannot drain correctly into the sewer system. In fact, this proposed location for the new firehouse is in a 500-year flood plain. (Firehouse #2 at Shaftesbury and North & South is in a 100-year flood plain.)
And some have questioned having a firehouse in a residential area. This location is on the edge of a residential area (whereas firehouse #2 is surrounded by residential areas). Firehouses are supposed to locate appropriately throughout a community to ensure that the fire trucks can reach all parts of a city within a certain amount of time. This location will allow for that level of service.
Now, to my thoughts.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE:
It’s long been my belief that University City has been harmed because of a continued focus on the present, and not the long-term needs of our community. For instance, at our recent budget study session, City Manager Lehman Walker presented figures showing that we would need to spend more than $20 MILLION over twelve years to cover the backlog of street, sidewalk and curb repairs throughout University City. To me that shows a generation of skimping on needed infrastructure improvements.
Our pension system is underfunded by about $2 million. In the “good old days” of higher sales tax revenue, we should have been putting money into that system in order to prepare for rainy days ahead. (I well remember having a conversation about this issue with a previous City Manager during my earlier time on the Council.) Well, the rainy days are here now, and I think they are staying for awhile. A little foresight back then would have put us on a better footing now.
We are a Tree City. The thousands of trees throughout our community are a huge asset, adding great value to University City. We have not been spending the money to take care of them as we should to protect that asset. (At one point we were taking out 146 trees for every one we planted, although City Forester James Crowe has improved upon that in recent years, under tough conditions.)
These are just a few of the ways I think we have not approached the work of the City with a long-term vision. We have to stop that. We must plan for the future, while providing for the present.
As noted above, as of January 2010 the construction of a new firehouse #1 was going to cost about $500,000 more than was provided in the grant. We knew then we had committed to a $200,000 match. The price has gone up some because of increased construction costs, by approximately $137,000. The architect provided information on these increased costs at the end of July, after Council had considered and approved the budget for this fiscal year. This money is available in our reserves. And I strongly believe this is an appropriate use of our reserve funds.
As Councilmember Steve Kraft has pointed out, new fire stations usually cost around $200/per square foot. We will be able to build this new facility at a cost to us of about $58/per square foot.
I believe a new facility is needed and warranted. I believe it would be wrong for this Council to leave the challenge of building a new firehouse to a future Council that likely would not be able to build a facility at the price we can build it for today. We should not pass the buck to a future Council, and a future generation of U City residents who would have to pay a higher price. We should build now for the next 100 years.
Some people for whom I have the greatest respect strongly disagree with me on this issue. I know they care about our community and our finances just as much as I do. But I respectfully disagree with their analyses of this issue. And I will cast my vote in favor of a facility that will better serve our residents, our fire fighters, and future U Citians.
If you have any questions/comments, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-505-8606.