To the casual visitor who only sees the Sag Harbor Firehouse for the occasional pancake breakfast or spaghetti dinner fundraiser, the sprawling facility on Brick Kiln Road is impressive with its polished floors, photographs of past fires displayed on the walls, and garage with huge fire trucks squeezed side by side that attracts the attention of wide-eyed children.
But to the volunteers who use the building after fighting a fire or for training or company meetings, it is sorely outdated, even though it was built in 1988, just 32 years ago. The same goes for the original firehouse, which is on Columbia Street, next to the main building, and remains in service as a garage for the department’s ladder truck, tanker, and a pumper, as well as the headquarters for the department’s Otter Hose Company. Ditto, the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps headquarters, built in 1992, where the doors are just not tall enough to accommodate a typical modern ambulance, personal protective equipment shares space with office supplies in a closet, and a tiny office serves multiple officials.
Earlier this year, the Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy appointed a committee that includes representatives from the fire department and the ambulance corps to begin the process of crafting a master plan for a new combined emergency services headquarters.
“It’s going to take us about a year to get the plans together, to get this vision put together,” said Trustee Tom Gardella, who serves with the mayor on the committee and is a former fire department chief and EMT with the ambulance corps. “Once we have that, and know how much it’s going to cost, then we’ll go about getting the funds.” It is so early in the process, he added, that the village has yet to hire an architect.
“At some point, you say, ‘Do we want to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a building that is not up to standards, or do we want to do the right thing and build a building that is going to last a long time?’” he said.
“It’s not falling down around them,” said Ms. Mulcahy, “but there is black mold in the walls and the windows leak. … It was just poorly built in its day.”
She said she would like to see the village explore building something like East Hampton Village’s Emergency Services Building, which has space for the fire department and ambulance corps as well as offices for the police department and other space for volunteers. Such a building might be able to provide a future home for the village Justice Court, she added.
Mr. Gardella said it might benefit the village to hire a site engineer to prepare a plan that would include the village Department of Public Works, which also shares the property.
Of course, with the coronavirus pandemic still delivering a body blow to local and state economies, finding funding to help cover the cost of a new facility might be problematic, but the mayor said if the village does put a referendum up for a vote, rock-bottom interest rates will reduce the total outlay over time. She added that the village might solicit donations from wealthy residents to help cover the costs. “As a nation, we are realizing how important first responders are,” she said. “It has been a time when generous people are coming to the forefront and helping out.”
On Tuesday, Fire Chief Steve Miller, First Assistant Chief Kevin O’Brien Jr., ambulance corps President Deborah O’Brien and Vice President Melissa Hesler described buildings that are suffering a death by 1,000 cuts rather than a single catastrophic failure, but they all agreed that bold steps need to be taken sooner rather than later to bring the facilities up to snuff.
“The problem is, they just didn’t plan for the future,” added Chief Miller, who nonetheless allowed that it would have been difficult to foresee the ever increasing size of firefighting equipment or the stricter federal safety requirements for cleaning contaminants from firefighters and their equipment alike.
“We have to plan for the next 50 years,” Chief O’Brien said matter-of-factly.
Are the buildings as bad as they say? During a quick walking tour of the firehouse, Chief Miller pointed out cracks in the foundation, leaking windows and doors, crumbling floor tiles, an undersized kitchen, an antiquated emergency generator, and a failing boiler. That boiler is being replaced with a gas furnace system that will cost about $37,000, but Mr. Gardella, who is a plumber by trade, said it could easily be repurposed for use in a new building.
Chief O’Brien noted that because the firehouse has no decontamination room, where firefighters could clean off hazardous substances they might encounter, they have to walk through the building to a shower in the main restroom to clean themselves. The garage, where four fire trucks are parked two deep, means volunteers sometimes have to move vehicles before they can leave for a call, lengthening response times. The tight space between trucks makes it difficult for firefighters in the turnout gear to maneuver, he added.
Chief Miller said a desk in the main hallway was the department’s “captain’s office” and pointed out random filing cabinets full of paperwork in the main corridor and meeting room.
Nor does the building have a fitness room. Although some would see that as a perk, the chief said the department is required to provide access to fitness facilities so members can stay in the physical shape required for the job. With no gym in house, it spends thousands of dollars a year on gym memberships, he said.
Behind the building, Chief Miller counted off “not one, not two, not three, but four sheds,” where extra equipment is stored. Chief O’Brien said mice had gotten into one of those sheds and damaged expensive protective gear.
Ms. O’Brien and Ms. Hesler pointed to similar problems at the ambulance barn, where there is rotting siding, a roof that needs replacing, and a bevy of other small structural problems.
A major issue for the ambulance corps is that its two bays were designed too small for new ambulances, requiring the village to order custom-made rigs that are not as tall or as long as stock models. Those alterations cost the village “thousands and thousands of dollars” every time it orders a new ambulance, the mayor said.
“It was alright when we had 200 calls a year, but now we have 800,” said Ms. O’Brien, who added the ambulance corps will likely need a third ambulance soon, but has no place to garage it.
Miscellaneous equipment is stored next to the ambulances, making for a tight squeeze for volunteers. Ms. O’Brien said some members store some supplies in their own homes, and paperwork, which the department must retain for varying numbers of years, fills filing cabinets scattered around the building. On Tuesday, the on-call paramedic sat in the main meeting room, eating his lunch. A closet is being reconfigured to provide those paid workers with a small office, and the district’s first responder vehicle sat outside because there is no garage space for it.