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Williamstown voters approve $22.5 million plan to build new net-zero fire station

A rendering of the new Williamstown, Massachusetts fire station layout.
Williamstown Fire Department
A rendering of the new Williamstown, Massachusetts fire station layout.

Voters in Williamstown, Massachusetts have approved a $22.5 million borrowing plan to build a new fire station.

Town residents gathered in the Williamstown Elementary School gym Tuesday night to consider the replacement of the decrepit, 73-year-old Water Street facility with a new one on Main Street.

Prudential Committee Chair and Fire District Building Committee member David Moresi said work had been done to keep the project as fiscally responsible as possible.

“We reduced the overall project costs by $2.5 million, a reduction of 10% over original project estimates," he told residents. "The designers, with input from our town firefighters, had to go back to the drawing board and reduce the size of the building to meet the cost reduction stipulated. An entire bay was eliminated. The training tower was eliminated. A conference room was removed. A stairwell was removed. Numerous support areas were eliminated, and the number of bunk rooms was reduced.”

Moresi noted that gifts and grants towards the new fire station have contributed to lowering the borrowing request and associated taxes.

“We have been very fortunate to date to have received a generous gift from Williams College of $5 million, as well as support from the town select board of $225,000," he said. "And I am pleased to recognize tonight yet another generous gift received from the Clark Art Institute of $500,000. All of these gifts, $5,725,000, will directly and significantly drive down the debt repayment schedule for the district.”

The select board’s contribution comes from Williamstown’s federal COVID-19 relief funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Fire District Building Committee member Jim Kolesar answered a community question about the environmental sustainability of the new facility.

“The decision was to have a station that not only met the safety standards, was operationally strong, but was net carbon zero, and to get certified for that, in order not to just hold ourselves accountable, but the designers and the and the contractors," he said. "And so, it does two things: It stipulates that all the energy use has to come from renewable sources. And it turns out that we can produce that with solar panels on the side, which is terrific. It also takes into account the embedded carbon in the materials.”

Committee member Don Dubendorf said it was wrongheaded to delay any further.

“We have an abysmal current circumstance in our station," he said. "It's not safe. We're asking people to volunteer and work in unsafe conditions. That's not tolerable. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. We responded to those needs of safety for our public servants in the police department not too long ago. It's now time after 73 years to do the same. That condition is imminent, it's present, it's constant, and we’ve got to do it now. So, it's not just a money issue.”

While the Williamstown Fire District has one full-time employee and several part-time employees, it relies on around 25 volunteer firefighters for its core operations. For fiscal year 2023, it had an operating budget of around $700,000.

Williams College senior Will Titus is one of 11 student volunteer firefighters for the town. He spoke directly to the current station’s considerable shortcomings.

“There are times when it is difficult to be a firefighter in Williamstown," he said. "My turnout coat and pants are hanging on a wall next to the fire engines in the truck Bay. The other 10 college students and the town residents who drive the fire engines keep their turnout gear on that same wall. Because our station was built before we understood the harms of diesel exhaust, our gear hanging on that wall is exposed to arsenic, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals, and diesel exhaust every time our trucks leave for a call. Every time I go on a call those toxins transfer from my gear to my skin. And even though we've done the best we can with the station we have to reduce contamination, I can still smell the exhaust on my clothes when I take my gear off. Because this station was built at a time when bunk rooms were considered a luxury, we have no way to sleep overnight at the station. With six bunk rooms, six college students and town residents could stay at the station overnight ready to respond to calls. That's enough firefighters to staff a fire engine and the ladder truck within moments of a call. Without those bunk rooms, it would mean a delay of several minutes before even one firefighter arrives at the station.”

Titus noted that the facility has a single room that hosts everything from trainings to meetings to meals.

“When you look at the plans for the new fire station, and you see that there will be a common room a fitness room decontamination areas, bunk rooms, and multiple truck bays, it's easy to think that the new station is too extravagant," he said. "But when you realize that each room in the new station has a specific purpose to protect the physical and mental health and readiness of our firefighters, then these rooms and the others in the new station no longer seem extravagant. Instead, they just seem necessary.”

The borrowing plan was approved with 509 yes votes to 32 noes.

Construction on the new station is expected to begin in Spring 2024 and take 14 months.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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