Firehouse Apparatus Bays Should Face Street, Chief Tells Commission

September 7, 2023

Interim Fire Chief Paul Sheehan, on the job for just three weeks, testified to the Bedford Historic District Commission at a public hearing on Wednesday that the ideal placement of the proposed fire station at 139 The Great Road features the three apparatus bays facing the street.

And some commission members indicated that they agree.

The Historic District Commission (HDC) regulates the appearance of everything visible from the street in the Bedford Center Historic District, along The Great Road from Bacon Road/Hillside Avenue and onto North Road to Carlisle Road. That means it has final authority over the design of the fire station, not to mention the permit required to demolish the existing building at the address.

The Fire Station Building Committee has been keeping the HDC apprised as plans take shape, and Wednesday’s hearing was seen as an opportunity for feedback, questions, and direction. 

The lead architect for the project, Sean Schmigle of Kaestle Boos Associates, presented three configuration options to the HDC. The first places the administrative section of the fire station at the front, and the apparatus bays in the rear. The second and third options flip that arrangement. (The difference between options two and three is the side of the building for separate ambulance bays.)

Sheehan spoke after commission members reviewed details of the proposed placement options with Schmigle. The interim chief, taking over for Chief David Grunes after he retired on Aug. 15, spent most of his career in Cambridge, where he retired as an assistant fire chief.  Sheehan just joined the Fire Station Building Committee; he personally introduced himself to HDC members before the meeting.

Sheehan was clear that as a firefighting professional, the best options are those that provide the apparatus with direct access to The Great Road.

That configuration minimizes response time, he said. “Otherwise, oversize trucks have to make two tight turns,” he said. And with public parking also proposed for the rear, apparatus “could possibly encounter vehicles doing business with the administrative side. Add in inclement weather and it can be a recipe for delay or disaster.” 

The interim fire chief offered other reasons for his preferred placement. 

“I thought about community,” he said, citing “the easygoing, friendly relationship between the firefighters and the townspeople.” 

He painted a picture of firefighters polishing equipment in front of the bays, parents bringing small children to see the equipment, “people dropping by to chat.”

He also noted that “firefighters are the closest first responders,” and “it’s quite common for folks with emergencies to drive to the fire station. It is imperative we build in such a way that it is obvious that the building is a fire station.”

“I believe that together we can build a beautiful, functional fire station that citizens can be proud of,” Sheehan said. 

The station should celebrate the department, he said. “It’s your community firehouse. Be proud of it.”

Each of the architectural options features a one-way circumferential loop for the long ladder truck, which will allow it to return to the site without having to back in and then face forward for the next departure.

Three members of the five-person commission and one alternate (there are two alternates, and one of those seats is vacant) attended the hearing. 

Member Jennifer McClain said, “I think there are a lot of reasons to like the bays closer to the street,” noting the importance of an appearance that’s “more like the neighborhood, not at residential scale but not a mammoth thing.”

McClain said that to pursue the options opening directly onto The Great Road, the HDC needs more details, particularly elevation and the view from the street. Schmigle pointed out that the site slopes by 10 feet from west to east, and the design will fit with the slope. 

Members were also concerned about the proposed rear parking area with firefighting equipment also accessing from the back of the building. 

“One of the challenges is public access from the parking lot and walking to the front, comingling public and private circulation with the potential of crossing paths with emergency apparatus,” said Schmigle.

Karl Winkler cited the challenge of sustaining the current green space at 139 The Great Road if firefighting vehicles exit from the front. He also added – before hearing from Sheehan – “if the fire chief weighs in, that’s really important to us.” He acknowledged that’s the quickest access for emergency vehicles.

Members stressed the importance of designing roof lines that don’t compromise the character of the area. The administrative and residential parts of the building are planned for two stories; the apparatus area is one-and-a-half.

“What do we have to do to this piece of land to make it viable for a fire station?” asked member Karen Kalil-Brown. “When it comes down to construction, what’s really going to happen?” 

She added, “I’m concerned that we aren’t going to end up with something as effective as the current fire station.” 

Schmigle acknowledged that “there would be some grade changing on any of these options.”

Winkler asked the architect to include on future renderings the location of the existing building as well as houses close to 139 The Great Road, “so we can have a sense of scale.”  

Kalil-Brown brought up the future of the stone wall currently along the sidewalk at 139 The Great Road. Suzanne Koller, an at-large member of the Building Committee, said that “any replacement should look like the current wall.” 

Winkler added, “That was always my intention. We want to be able to retain that style.”

Schmigle, noting that current curb cuts will need widening, said, “We want to salvage what’s there” and even wrap the wall onto the site.

“Our job is to sustain the scape of the town, of The Great Road,” Kalil-Brown said. “What do we want the center of our town to look like? The main question is: What is the end result going to be?” 

Schmigle reassured Kalil-Brown that the 24-foot access road is wide enough to accommodate the turning radii of the apparatus.

“I would hate for us to approve something and then discover that we need a wider road,” she said.

Resident Amy Lloyd, who is a member of the Planning Board, noted that “a three-bay fire station is not unusual” in a historic area. She said for a project of this magnitude, “the whole site is going to be razed and replanted. I suspect the majority of townspeople expect that.”

Future presentations should include a detailed planting plan that can be locked in, Winkler recommended. 

“I understand we have to be realistic but account for it so it’s not a surprise later.” He asked about retaining existing trees, but Schmigle said that didn’t seem practical considering the need for circulation, driveways, and parking. 

Winkler also called for maximizing the roof of the structure to accommodate solar panels. He also called for effectively screening generators and other outdoor utilities. 

“I don’t want the neighbors to have to see something like that,” he said.

Winkler was interested in the potential for maximizing permeable surface in the rear. He also emphasized the need for screening if the apparatus emanates from the rear, since lights from large trucks already idling could disturb people in neighboring residences.

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Patty Dahlgren
September 8, 2023 9:00 am

Listen to the Chief. Committees are nice but the 1st responders using the facility know more than any of us ever will. The ability to function the fastest in life and death situations must mean that aesthetics and historical considerations must take a back seat to practical efficiencies.

Amy Hamilton
September 8, 2023 12:53 pm
Reply to  Patty Dahlgren

Well said, Patty.

Kathryn Rifkin
September 9, 2023 9:46 am
Reply to  Patty Dahlgren

I second the observation.

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