Ellsworth eyes new public safety building for police, fire departments

ELLSWORTH — As the city’s fire and police departments grapple with increasingly cramped conditions at City Hall, city officials are looking seriously at building a new facility specifically for the public safety agencies.

On Monday, Aug. 21, the City Council will consider whether to approve hiring Bangor-based WBRC Architects Engineers to provide “engineering services related to developing a plan for a new public safety building.”

City Manager David Cole said if the council approves his request to work with WBRC, the goal would be for the firm to come up with a “concept plan” that would incorporate ideas city officials have considered and give a visual dimension to the plans.

The work would cost up to $70,000, Cole said, and would likely be completed by early next year. He said there is enough money in reserves to pay for that work.

Cole said it is too early to say how much a public safety building would cost, because there are so many unknowns still, but he acknowledged any such structure would carry a large price tag.

Fire Chief Richard Tupper is chairman of the internal Public Safety Building Committee at City Hall. He said the idea of a standalone structure for the police and fire departments is not a new one.

As evidence, he pointed to an Ellsworth American “Looking Back” column from 2012 that shows former Fire Chief Everett Farnsworth was advocating for a public safety building in 1987.

Different ideas have come and gone over the years: building substations in outlying parts of the city, erecting a standalone fire station where Seaport Village Healthcare now stands (that project displaced the fire station idea) and using the former Collier’s building on Birch Street as space for the Police Department. None of those came to fruition, however.

Tupper said the committee has been studying the idea of a public safety building in earnest for a little more than two years. He said the group looked at 8 to 10 potential sites around the city, and settled on the baseball field at Ellsworth High School as the best choice.

He said it is a good-sized piece of land, flat, with access to power, water and sewer, and it is land already owned by the city. It is also close to the heart of the city, where most of the calls the departments get come from.

“It’s a real decent site,” Tupper said. “There are just a lot of things going good for it.”

Though the location is not yet a settled matter — like everything else related to the project, it is only a possibility — Tupper said city officials have talked about it with school officials. He said they are generally supportive of it, so long as any such building does not block the view of the high school from State Street.

Tupper said there is enough land adjacent to the softball field at the high school for a new baseball field to be built there.

Both the fire and police departments have outgrown the spaces they currently occupy at City Hall. The Fire Department has been there 82 years since the building was completed in 1935, following the Great Fire of 1933 that destroyed the city’s downtown.

“It was designed for that era’s fire apparatus,” Tupper said.

Modifications and concessions have been made over the years to keep the space in the basement of City Hall viable. Floors were lowered by 8 inches and ceilings were raised in renovation work done two decades ago to make room for bigger, modern trucks.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. When the city got its 2010 ladder truck, it had to pay $50,000 extra for a custom, low-profile version that would fit inside one of the truck bays. Other equipment has to be moved in and out of the fire station on a seasonal basis because there simply isn’t room for all of it to be in there at the same time.

Upstairs at the Police Department, the 18 sworn officers and three full-time dispatchers are also facing cramped conditions. The department has one bathroom and one locker room (used by both male and female officers), and Police Chief Glenn Moshier said the bathroom also doubles as storage space.

The department also is dealing with inadequate storage space for evidence, ammunition and other material. Plus, Moshier said, City Hall is not the best place for the Police Department because people coming in to see police often have different needs than those going to pay their taxes or register their dog.

“Folks that come here to see us may not always be under the best circumstances,” Moshier said.

As he said that over the phone from his office on one end of the station, a situation at the dispatch desk on the other side of the station underscored his point. Scanner traffic indicated a 17-year-old girl, bleeding from superficial cuts on her arms, had walked into the department’s small lobby seeking help. County Ambulance was called and she was taken to the hospital.

Tupper said there have been conversations about having space for other public safety agencies, such as County Ambulance or the Hancock County Regional Communications Center, in any future public safety building. No decisions have been made, but Tupper said it is important to have the conversation now and consider all the options rather than building a facility and then asking the questions later.

Tupper said the baseball field site also would allow for future expansion, whereas smaller sites would not do that. He said that is important, as the building should last for a long time (Cole said at least 50 years, while Tupper said he hopes for 75 or more).

Cole noted Ellsworth’s population has increased 22 percent since 2000, leading to growth in its public safety agencies. Moshier said as a result of the population increase other city departments have grown, too, and that those departments could utilize the empty space if the police and fire departments were to move to a new building.

Moshier and Tupper both said having a solid design for a public safety building facility is important because for the men and women who work there it is their home away from home.

“The majority of our people spend more time here than they do at their own homes,” Moshier said.

Tupper said key features he would like to see in a public safety building include a dedicated space for the Fire Department’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus equipment, which he called a firefighter’s lifeline. He also would like to have a room for turnout gear to keep firefighters safe from the carcinogens picked up by the gear at a fire scene.

Both chiefs would like to have space to conduct training for their departments and offer regional training opportunities for other nearby departments that they often work with.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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