The first thing Fire Chief David Grunes wants you to know about the facilities at 55 The Great Road is this: “There may be deficiencies, but we do our job. And there’s a commitment, a value system that has been instilled.”
On Monday, March 28, voters at Annual Town Meeting will decide whether to purchase 139 The Great Road, and whether to finance a design for a new fire station at that location. There is some opposition to the proposed site because it is within the Bedford Center Historic District.
But no one now, or over the past several years of intense consideration of potential sites, has anyone even suggested that a new fire and rescue facility is not an immediate need.
The building is more than 70 years old. There are many issues with the tired headquarters, but Capt. Mark Sullivan boils it down to two major problems: “The apparatus floor and storage in general. There’s too much equipment and too little space.”
“Our core mission is: We are here for the community,” asserted Grunes. “And just to protect lives and property, we just need the tools and the staff.”
But “staff” is a changing variable. Sullivan noted that when he joined the department in 1996 there were five firefighters per shift; now there are seven
These days, he said, “it’s like recruiting a college athlete.” And the quality of the facilities is a major factor. “These guys can pick and choose where they work,” added Grunes. “It’s tough for us to say, ‘You’re going to share a restroom with a washing machine.’
“Covid has accelerated the need for us to get out of here,” the chief added, as firefighters and paramedics are sleeping all over the place, to avoid an outbreak of Covid-19.
There are three bays facing The Great Road. Grunes said the department requires four to maximize response from the appropriate apparatus. And overall, “we need more width and clearance.”
Spacing between vehicles in the bays is a problem – there isn’t enough of it. The trucks are close enough to impede the quick donning of gear. The hoses that vent diesel fumes out of the building add to the congestion.
The chief said that when bidding on a ladder truck, the department is limited because most of the models are a foot too tall to fit in the current quarters. “It’s a miracle we don’t take out more mirrors when backing in the ladder truck,” Sullivan cracked.
The department’s second ambulance is stored inside – but behind the big ladder truck. So when it’s needed, a firefighter pulls the truck out of the way, then backs it into the space, and sometimes has to then hop onto the ambulance if needed on the crew. Sullivan said the choreography resembles “Keystone Kops.”
Outside, besides limited parking, there’s a more serious situation. The forestry truck, which stays outside, and another piece of apparatus, which faces the rear bays, have to exit via School Avenue, on the west side of the station. Sometimes they encounter cars or even delivery trucks, serving the businesses next door and blocking the way.
Besides the forestry truck, there’s more equipment that just can’t fit. The ice rescue gear is kept in a tent. The hazardous materials trailer is kept near Town Center, and some spare equipment is at the town-owned row of dilapidated garages on the southern end of the VA Hospital campus.
Off the bays, on each side, are a series of storage rooms, each with a purpose. But Lt. Nick Sanderson explained, “There’s no space that’s a dedicated room for one use.” Many rooms feature ceiling tiles stained with water damage.
“Every room seems to double as storage,” Sullivan observed. “There is constantly storage moving from one thing to the next. We knew 10 years ago we would run out of space.”
Firefighter/paramedic Carla Sahrbeck oversees the advanced life support supplies in the emergency medical service room. Besides a cabinet, there’s a series of hanging shelves and baskets on the walls, an innovative use of space designed by firefighters, Sullivan said. Some of the supplies have to be stored elsewhere in the building.
Another room is reserved for storage of individual gear; isolation is essential to ensure that contaminants that may have adhered to clothing and equipment don’t enter the ventilation system, Sullivan stressed. Even here, there’s a supply of Covid-19 related accessories.
The hazardous materials storage room houses everything from Tyvek suits and medical waste products to booms, absorbents, and other remediation equipment. The door won’t close, but at least everything is in one place.
There’s a mechanic’s workshop with limited space, a room for hoses that also houses oxygen bottles, and a clothes dryer, — the washing machine is elsewhere. Oxygen storage and a child seat and ballistic equipment for the active-shooter training fill another room. In the attic is radio equipment that’s temperature sensitive. Even the fire station’s boiler room also serves as storage space.
The living area includes some two-man rooms; Sahrbeck sleeps in the conference room. There are lockers in the hallway. And there’s only one shower big enough to accommodate an adult. For some reason, there’s a showerhead at each end. “The toilet used to fall off the wall,” Sahrbeck said casually.
The New England Patriots donated some of the machines in the basement exercise room, where water comes in around a window. There’s a sump pump constantly going, and paint peeling from moisture.
A generation ago, 55 The Great Road was a public safety building. The half that fronts on Elm Street was the police station – that’s why there’s a door there.
On the former police side, the old locker room was converted to Fire Department training space. But Sullivan explained most current training in medical topics or fire science is done regionally. The firehouse space is “totally inadequate” for a regional audience, so the space is used to store medical supplies and to accommodate a sleeping firefighter for Covid protection.
Medical training, meanwhile, takes place in the second-floor conference room at Town Hall. The paramedics park the ambulance outside or run over to the fire station if they get a call during class, Sullivan related.
There’s also a room for the server in the basement – Sullivan pointed to a hole in the door, arranged by the Facilities Department, for ventilation.
Upstairs, in the office of Capt. John Daniels, fire prevention officer, building plans seem to be stashed in every available space. Next door in Sullivan’s office, there are so many storage boxes piled up that it looks like he is ready for a move. Firefighter/paramedic Evan Loreth sat on a bed – “the nearest open nook,” Sullivan explained – as he took inventory of a medical box.
“It seems like small stuff,” Sullivan acknowledged. Then he added, “But there are so many day-to-day challenges to operating safely and efficiently.”
The firefighters’ day room, the “corner office” on the northwest side, is “the least of our issues,” the captain noted. He pointed to the kitchen cabinets and accessories customized by individual firefighters with an occupational motif. “A lot of pride went into the kitchen,” said the captain.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763