A multi-year conversation about expanding the EMS and fire station on West Main Street in Cambridge, and how five municipalities will jointly pay for that, is ramping up.
At recent meetings of the Cambridge Area Fire and EMS Commission, and in a separate interview with fire and EMS officials, expansion of the station was the main topic.
The commission has kicked off the design process and is beginning to prepare for five simultaneous municipal referendums expected to be on the ballot in April 2021.
Keller, Inc., a design-build firm from Kaukauna, was hired in December to help shepherd the process.
The tentative price tag to triple the size of and modernize the station built in 1985, expanding onto an adjacent Pizza Pit restaurant site, is $5-7 million. Some commission members, pointing to similar recent projects elsewhere in Wisconsin, have said they are hopeful the cost might come in closer to $4 million.
Led by the Town of Christiana, the five municipalities represented on the commission bought the Pizza Pit site last year.
The five municipalities – the villages of Rockdale and Cambridge and towns of Oakland, Christiana and Lake Mills — are each served in whole or in part by the fire and EMS departments that operate out of the downtown Cambridge station. Each municipality has a voting seat on the commission and together they operate through a complicated agreement that dates to the 1950s.
The fire department remains all-volunteer while the EMS Department is now a mix of volunteers and full-time staff.
The commission doesn’t have taxing authority; it annually sends a budget request to the five municipalities who each cover a portion of the budget based on their equalized value. In 2020, 25 percent of the budget is being covered by Cambridge, 49 percent by the Town of Oakland, 20 percent by the Town of Christiana, 3.5 percent by the Town of Lake Mills and 2.5 percent by the Village of Rockdale. The fire and EMS commission’s total 2020 budget request to the municipalities amounted to about $888,000.
It isn’t clear what would happen if one of the 2021 referendums to expand the station fails, although the commission has loosely discussed the implications of that at some of its recent monthly meetings.
In a joint interview earlier this month, Fire Chief Terry Johnson, First Assistant Fire Chief Tim Scott and EMS Director Bob Salov said they expect to make the rounds to town and village board meetings early in 2020, sharing details of the upcoming process.
Early renderings of the proposed design are expected to be available soon, and will be shared publicly, Salov said.
And more formal public hearings are expected to be scheduled later in 2020 as the referendums approach.
The station expansion referendum processes is expected to rapidly progress after the conclusion of an April Cambridge School District referendum to add and operate a $9.9 million performing arts center at Cambridge High School.
“We’re kind of like a bunch of stacked jets. We’re taxiing, trying to figure out when the runway’s going to be clear for us, and then we want to be there and ready to go,” Scott said.
If a funding path is cleared with all of five referendums passing in April 2021, construction would likely begin in the spring of 2022. The actual construction could take up to 18 months, Johnson said.
Scott, Johnson and Salov recently shared with the commission an 18-point written justification for the expansion, prepared by a newly formed building committee.
Reasons include dangerous overcrowding in the apparatus bays; insufficient space to hold large group meetings and trainings for all EMS and fire members at the same time; lack of secure storage; and lack of living quarters for full-time EMS members, who are currently housed in a rented apartment across U.S. Hwy. 12 from the station. “We’ve got EMTs running across the highway in the middle of the night, that’s not good,” Scott said.
The full 18-point justification is attached to the online version of this article at www.hngnews.com/cambridge_deerfield/
“There are some dangerous situations here, some of which have been here since the station was built and some of which have been exacerbated,” as time has gone on, Scott said during a recent walk through the fire department apparatus bay, home to a variety of large trucks, racks for clothing and other gear and specialized equipment like a rescue boat.
Scott pointed to firefighter clothing racks that, due to lack of alternative space for them, are just steps from large trucks.
The current industry standard is for firefighters to store and put on their gear in a separate room; that room will be in the expanded station design, Scott said.
“Here’s a person with their back turned putting on their boots and here’s a gazillion-ton truck leaving. If they accidentally put it in reverse you’ve got eight inches of reaction time,” Scott said.
Statistically, Scott said, accidents happen during high-stress call responses, as volunteer firefighters and EMTs rapidly arrive and head out to a scene.
“When people die at a station, it’s either from a heart attack or by getting hit from a backing up vehicle,” Scott said.
No one has been injured in Cambridge – yet, Scott said.
But “we’ve had a lot of close calls,” he said.
“We’ve had so many close calls, it’s scary,” Salov agreed. “There is a real necessity for this building.”
Scott said a main reason the fire department apparatus bay has gotten crowded, is that fire trucks have gotten longer.
The current space is about 80 feet deep; the plan is to deepen that to 100 feet as part of the expansion and to bring fire trucks and ambulances together into one joint apparatus bay.
Later this spring, Cambridge is scheduled to host a Dane County Fire Chief’s Association meeting for about 60 people. The only space in the Cambridge station where that’s possible is the fire department apparatus bay.
“We’ll have to take trucks out of the bay,” to accommodate everyone, Scott said. “Luckily, we have a May meeting. If we would have ended up being a January meeting, we probably would have had to switch with someone.”
Although Cambridge doesn’t currently have full-time firefighters, the expansion is expected to include firefighter quarters with the expectation that the shift away from an all-volunteer force is likely coming.
Even without full-time firefighters, having dedicated quarters would allow volunteers to stay at the station during emergency situations like snowstorms, Scott said.
The EMS department now houses its two ambulances in its own apparatus bay. That is getting tighter too, Salov said, as modern ambulances get longer.
The Fire and EMS Commission on Jan. 22 approved buying two, five-year-old ambulances from the Waunakee Fire Department at a cost of $95,000, paid for out of an equipment fund.
During a recent tour, Salov pointed out EMS equipment stacked on top of cabinets; existing storage is maxed out, he said. A washing machine sits a couple of feet from one of the ambulances.
Walking space will shrink further when the two repurposed Waunakee ambulances are delivered, Salov said
Johnson, Scott and Salov stressed that the fire and EMS service would have to seamlessly keep operating during the construction process. The commission in recent months has begun to reach out to other communities to understand how that’s been done elsewhere.
At the Jan. 22 monthly meeting, Fire and EMS commission members reviewed what they see as the most critical existing needs that justify expanding the station.
Commission members then went on at a Jan. 23 meeting with Keller, Inc., to discuss Keller’s upcoming process for drawing up a first round of plans.
The commissions also discussed a recent needs assessment by Keller that showed, among other things, a lack of work space and privacy in the current fire and EMS station.
Salov and Scott said during the Jan. 22 meeting that in the current station, it’s difficult to have sensitive conversations, to secure medical records and to find a quiet place to work on a busy day.
The needs assessment identified a need for more office space for the EMS Director, fire chief and others in future leadership roles. It said other needs include a conference room and a shared work area that can accommodate up to eight people.
Commission members also discussed the value of heated apparatus bay floors, individual bathrooms attached to sleeping rooms, space for command vehicles and separate gear storage.
Christiana Town Chair Maureen Lien questioned why the needs assessment recommended eight sleeping rooms in the expanced station.
Scott responded that if Cambridge someday adds full-time firefighters, more sleeping rooms with attached restrooms would become important.
Scott and Johnson stressed in an interview that there are no imminent plans to add full-time firefighters.
“We’re planning for it because it a possibility, because it’s responsible to be ready, but we’re not actively planning for that transition,” Scott said.
The anticipated cost of the expansion and related referendums are weighing on elected officials in the commission’s five municipalities.
“I just wonder, have we really given thought to all of this, in terms of its numerical value? What it’s going to mean for our residents?” Cambridge Village President Mark McNally asked at the Jan. 22 commission meeting.
“We all know that we’ve got a school referendum that’s coming up,” as well as equipment needs and the possible future transition to full-time firefighters, McNally said.
“I’m not convinced that we have the money,” he said, adding that “I also know you can’t go down the road on bikes with garden hoses, you have to have equipment.”
“I’m not saying you postpone building,” McNally continued. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with examining our needs.”
But, he said, “whether we can pull the trigger on all this, that’s where I would have a concern.”
Oakland Town Chairman Eugene Kapsner responded that the expanded station is needed, and that each of the five municipalities has an obligation to fund its portion of the cost.
“People expect police protection, and people expect fire and EMS protection, and it’s your responsibility to provide that for your community, as a board,” Kapsner said.