Fire commissioners have preliminary results of study on rescue response times; may not release outcome before the vote

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

By Kyle Barr

Some St. James residents are feeling burned over the St. James Fire District’s plans to sell the Route 25A firehouse as the hamlet heads toward a referendum vote June 19.

More than 70 people attended a May 30 community forum where the St. James Fire District presented its plans to sell the iconic two-story, white firehouse back to the St. James Fire Department, as well as its
future plans for the building.

On June 19, Commissioner Ed Springer said the St. James Fire District — which consists of elected officials who are responsible for setting taxes to provide and maintain the buildings, fire and EMS service equipment the volunteers use — will ask community residents to approve a sale of the Route 25A firehouse for $500,000 back to St. James Fire Department, an organization representing volunteers for fire and emergency response services.

The fire district purchased the building in 2013 with original intentions of operating it as a second firehouse to the Jefferson Avenue facility and pass a bond for upcoming repair work. Two bond votes have since failed, one in 2013 and a second request for $12 million in September 2017.

We’re going to have to do [a] tremendous amount of work on both firehouses.”

– Ed Springer

“The department wants the building back, and we need to do work on both buildings” Springer said. “We could rent the space to them for $20,000 a year, which we think is pretty reasonable.”

If the vote passes, St. James residents raised questions over what fate holds for the iconic firehouse and how it may impact their local fire rescue services.

Springer said the district will consider leasing space in the building at a rate of $20,000 a year to store equipment and host community events, but final cost and specific details have not been finalized.

Glen Itzkowitz, board chairman of St. James Fire Department, said the department would then use the money from that lease to complete much-needed renovations on both the Route 25A firehouse and the Jefferson Avenue headquarters. The organization’s members would offer their time and skills during construction to help reduce labor costs of the project.

“We’re going to have to do [a] tremendous amount of work on both firehouses,” Springer said. “Back when we wanted the last bond to pass it would cost $250 per square foot, now you’re talking about $450 per square foot.”

But it remains unclear whether or not the Route 25A firehouse would continue to serve as a base of fire rescue operations.

We are so fortunate to have a fire station on both sides of the train tracks.”

– Peter Macari

St. James resident Peter Macari, a 24-year member of the fire department, said many in the community fear response times would increase if the Route 25A firehouse is no longer used as a working fire station.

“We are so fortunate to have a fire station on both sides of the train tracks,” Macari said. “If that building can get a fireman to that person’s house in the time it takes to save them, then that building did its job.”

The district currently operates one fire truck out of the Route 25A fire station, but Springer said the district does have plans to perform a trial run of operating all fire department services out of the Jefferson
Avenue headquarters — once it can make much-needed renovations.

“Is there sometime in the future where we might look to do a trial period to bring all apparatus down to the one firehouse, yes, but we still plan to lease that firehouse for a number of years,” the fire commissioner said. “Understand that its difficult during the day to have two crews out in two different places.”

This spring, the commissioners of St. James Fire District hired a third-party consultant RFG Fire Rescue Consulting to conduct a study on response times of both fire houses to different parts of the hamlet. The study includes public feedback on performance collected through an online survey. While an initial draft report of the findings is complete, fire district officials said that they will release the report only once it is reviewed by the district and consultant, but gave no specific date on when that might be or whether it will be released before the June 19 referendum vote.

“It seems silly to sell it when they don’t have a complete plan.”

– John Rowan

Itzkowitz said almost all operations for the department already occur at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse, and that current response times are sufficient to anywhere in the 4.5-square-mile area.

John Rowan, of St. James, asked why the department wouldn’t hold off the vote until they could confirm exactly what they wanted to do with the property down the line.

“It seems like [the fire district] doesn’t have those exact numbers on how much renovations or how much a new building will cost,” Rowan said. “I don’t think they know what they want to build in the future. It seems silly to sell it when they don’t have a complete plan.”

Springer said that three of the five commissioners, including himself, have promised long-term commitments to lease the 25A firehouse into the foreseeable future. But Springer’s term as commissioner is up this coming January, and he said he does not plan to seek reappointment.

If the referendum is approved June 19, the fire commissioner said the sale or lease of the Route 25A firehouse would not have any impact on residents’ taxes. Should it fail, Springer said the necessary renovations would require raising the tax levy.

The referendum to sell the 25A firehouse will take place on June 19 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse on 221 Jefferson Ave.