The city of Merrill is considering the future of Fire Station #2 on West Main Street in the city’s Sixth Ward. The adjacent Agra Industries is interested in purchasing the building for expansion of its operations and the city has long been studying the possibility of consolidating the fire department into a single new fire station.
Station #2 was opened in 1961 to speed response to incidents on the west side of town. A prime factor at that time was the railroad tracks that had the potential to significantly delay response to that area from Fire Station #1 on East Main Street. A feasibility study done in 2009 noted that the trains no longer present the issues they once did. The trains are shorter and fewer now, noted Alderperson Anne Caylor.
With the recently implemented 5-man minimum staffing in the fire department, the department’s response has been to close Station 2 on days when staffing levels drop below six men. This happens due to vacations and sick days. In May and June, Station 2 was closed for 34 of the 60 days.
“No dire consequences arose,” stated City Administrator David Johnson.
Johnson pointed out that the sale of Station 2 would be a step toward solving the fire department’s overall facility needs.
“The real issue is Fire Station 1 and the need for a new fire station for Merrill,” Johnson said.
Johnson presented a long list of deficiencies in the 95-year-old structure. It has been added onto and “cobbled together” over the years, Johnson noted.
“It’s not a very functional facility,” he said.
Problems with Fire Station 1, which have been documented in previous studies, include poor work flow, inadequate shower facilities and training space, electrical and plumbing problems, and a lack of parking, among other issues.
“The bottom line is we need a new fire station,” Johnson said. “What we have is wholly inadequate.”
The station also does not have any provisions for separate facilities for female firefighters.
“If we have a female apply and she is the most qualified, we have no way to accommodate her,” Johnson said.
Options presented in the past include remodeling the current Station and adding on at a cost of $3.7 million, demolishing and replacing the original section of the building while retaining the additions at a cost of $4.9 million, or building a whole new station at a cost of $7.3 million.
Johnson proposed a new, fourth option, which would be to build a new fire station at Street Square using a pre-engineered steel structure. Using property the city already owns and a more economical construction method could cut costs considerably, Johnson said. Using examples of similar fire stations built in other communities, Johnson estimated that the new building would cost somewhere between $2.3 and $4 million.
“We can have a new station cheaper than we can renovate the old one,” Johnson said. “What you saw for $7.3 million was a Cadillac, compared to the Chevrolet that I propose.”
If Station 2 were closed, equipment currently housed there would have to be moved to other county-owned buildings such as the city garage and former DNR building.
“That is one of the drawbacks, I do have concerns about having the equipment spread out,” said Fire Chief Bob Odegard. “It’s hard to estimate how much of a delay that’s going to cause.”
Caylor said the council should act on a plan for a new fire station while they have a willing buyer for Station 2.
“If we know we have a sale, we can plan for the future,” she said. “We need to look at the best scenario for the city in the future. We’ve reached the point where we have to do something; if we’re going to do it we might as well do it right.”
Meeting as the Committee of the Whole Tuesday, the City Council voted to wait for a month before making a decision on selling Station 2. The major sticking point is the ambulance contract with Lincoln County. The county actually owns the ambulance service, which is operated under contract by the Merrill Fire Department for the southern half of the county and by Ministry Sacred Heart Hospital in the north. The city is looking for assurances from the county that the contract will continue at least into the near future before proceeding with a new fire station.
“We need to know where we stand with the county on ambulance service,” said alderman Mark Peterson. “That’s one huge question that’s hanging out there that we need to know. If we lose the ambulance contract, we’ll have a big staffing issue.”
All Merrill firefighters are now required to be trained paramedics at the time of hire. The amount of ambulance runs in any given month vastly outnumber the fire and rescue calls.
The Lincoln County Emergency Medical Services Committee had a closed session agenda item slated for Wednesday to discuss ambulance contracts, which caused city council members to pause. Information from that meeting was not immediately available.
The Committee of the Whole will take up the issue again at a Sept. 4 meeting to determine whether to sell the Station 2 building to Agra.
Agra owner Pat Hinner said his intentions would be to remodel the existing fire station building for use as office space.
“We’re looking for more storage and office space. The fire station would suit us very well,” he said. “It’s within walking distance (of current Agra buildings) and the size of the building would work out very well for us. We would be more than happy to acquire it.”
Hinner said the company is outgrowing its current facility and would have immediate use for the fire station building.
“We have a need for staff and no room to house them,” he said.