Bedford’s Annual Town Meeting is still almost two months away, but Select Board member Emily Mitchell is well along in her preparations to refute a petitioners’ article that calls for an ad hoc committee to address the town’s overall public safety facility needs, focusing on a new Fire Department central station and substation.
The article was submitted shortly after plans for a new station at 139 The Great Road were derailed by a 3-2 Historic District Commission vote denying certificates allowing demolition and construction.
The petitioners, all opponents of that location, provided support saying that Town Meeting should consider addressing the need for a central station and substation simultaneously.
Mitchell has been the Select Board’s point person on the fire station project for the past two years. She shared her data with fellow members of the Fire Department Building Committee on Monday, emphasizing that her data points have not been reviewed or endorsed by her colleagues on the board.
The last major study validating the need for a new central fire station was presented to the Board of Selectmen in 2018, and it reinforced an earlier conclusion that the current station is inadequate and expansion on that site is not feasible, Mitchell said.
“There’s a perception out there,” she said, that the station at 55 The Great Road can be expanded. “It’s a non-starter,” she said, with no room to grow in any direction.
Other residents point to the Bedford Motel at 30 North Road, she continued, which is “problematic for a lot of reasons.” She noted frequent traffic congestion where Carlisle Road meets North Road, as well as a few hundred feet east at Willson Park. Fire Department Capt. Mark Sullivan added that apparatus would have trouble navigating the connector (called Park Row) between North and Concord roads – the northwest leg of the Willson Park triangle.
Mitchell also addressed the substation, primarily serving the Middlesex Turnpike-Crosby Drive corridor.
She said Fire Department call volume from the town’s northeast quadrant did not warrant construction of a substation in 2015, according to a consultant’s report. Since then, she reported, overall call volume increased by 15 percent, but by a much smaller rate in the northeast quadrant – from 18 to 20 percent of total calls.
Another variable she noted was a concentration of permits for storage of hazardous and flammable materials among commercial properties east of Route 3.
Overall, Mitchell said, “I see growth. I don’t see a spike. I don’t see a crisis.”
She added that most commercial buildings are equipped with fire suppression systems.
Sullivan noted that the buildings’ use has “changed over time.” A few years ago, “hundreds of people in cubicles” occupied office buildings, many of which have since been converted to laboratory space or partially emptied as workers choose a remote option.
Interim Fire Chief Paul Sheehan pointed out that a substation would require additional apparatus.
“You don’t make the headquarters smaller,” he said.
The 2015 study said a substation should be equipped with an engine and an ambulance, Mitchell said. Sullivan noted most substations in area towns house a single engine, which serves as a vanguard “before the cavalry comes” from the central station.
The substation would require an additional 12 personnel in the department: three firefighters per shift over four shifts.
The estimated cost to build and operate a substation, according to a 2022 estimate, is more than $9 million, not including land acquisition, Mitchell said.
Compared to the central station price tag of at least $20 million, “It is tempting to look at those numbers and think this is a good plan,” said Mitchell. But “the substation does not eliminate the need for a new headquarters. It doesn’t solve any of the things we need to solve. It is a distraction.”
Mitchell pointed out that an earlier petitioners’ substation article noted five town-owned parcels in the northeast quadrant. None of those locations is suitable for development of a fire station, she said. They include wetlands, a water standpipe, and the Bacon-Fitch-Ashby-Clark Mill site across from Carleton Willard, at 95 Old Billerica Rd.