CES looks to move Soldotna fire station

Central Emergency Services is looking to East Redoubt Avenue in Soldotna for its new Station 1 site.

 

The service area, which provides emergency medical and firefighting services to the central peninsula outside the city of Kenai, has been working on plans to move its primary station away from its current location on Binkley Street for several years. The site selection committee, which includes representatives from the borough, CES and the city of Soldotna, has recently chosen a parcel on East Redoubt Avenue near Fred Meyer as the best option.

Station 1 handles nearly 3,000 medical and fire calls per year — that’s about 8 per day — and serves as the central administration location for the service area, among other functions. The current building was built in 1957, before either the borough or the city of Soldotna existed, and is past its useful life, said CES Chief Roy Browning.

“Our strongest thing is the public safety and meeting the needs of a growing community,” he said. “The current facility has outgrown its operational capacity. I know we’ve been pursuing as a service area since 2003 the best alternative for this.”

For one, the station was built with a staff of four or five people in mind. Today, a standard shift has 11 people, not counting the administrative staff. The training area can only hold 12 people at a time, while CES maintains a staff of 40 full-time employees and between 35 and 40 volunteers, Browning said.

The current station doesn’t have room to house volunteers, either, leading to them being spread out to the Kalifornsky Beach, Sterling, Kasilof or Funny River stations. CES would prefer to have all the volunteers in training at the central station, Browning said. And during the wildfire seasons, when CES responds in concert with the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Division of Forestry, they don’t have enough space for the additional staff to stay at the station in the parking lot to stage equipment, he said.

“65 percent of our emergency calls are generated in the Station 1 response area or district,” he said. “Currently … we don’t have enough quarters to staff the appropriate level of responders. That’s a lot of it. We needed to be able to have a bigger footprint for the size we need.”

The current structure is old, with the electrical, plumbing, heating and roof maintenance issues that come with old buildings, Browning said.

There’s also just not enough space for the equipment. CES has gradually upgraded its ambulances, fire engines and tankers and acquired other vehicles — including snowmachines, boats and all-terrain vehicles for remote rescues — over the year that don’t fit at Station 1. The building shares an approximately .87-acre lot with the Soldotna Police Department and abuts a busy road near Safeway and the intersection with the Sterling Highway.

When staff is working on the vehicles, some of them have to be outside, which requires it to be running constantly in the winter to keep the patient areas of ambulances warm and the water in the tankers and engines from freezing. That consumes a lot of gas, Browning said.

They chose the area on East Redoubt Avenue from among 11 prospective sites after the site selection committee determined the current land wouldn’t work, even if they tore down the building and started over. The site on East Redoubt would give them more space for the future station and still be centrally located, Browning said.

The borough doesn’t currently own the land. To purchase it, the service area board would have to approve it, followed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, said Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg.

The service area has $400,000 available to put toward purchasing the land, pending approval by the assembly in the borough’s fiscal year 2019 budget. However, the total construction is estimated to cost another $11 million, according to a capital project request the service area submitted to the state through the borough.

State capital project grants have been few and far between for the past several years, amid an ongoing tussle over the state’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit after a major downturn in oil prices and North Slope oil production. The borough submits a list of capital project priorities every year but has not received grants to support them for the past several.

Ahlberg said they recognize that state funding may not be likely but have reached out to the area’s legislators and to Alaska’s congressional delegation to ask about possibilities for funding. She said she would work on other possible grant sources to help move the project forward as well, and the borough administration has discussed the possibility of issuing bonds to help pay for the station. It’s prudent to explore all funding sources and plan for the future, she said.

“Not only I think have we seen favorable community support, but I think it’s a good practice of due diligence to let our residents know what we’re doing, that we’re planning for the future,” she said.

They’re planning a phased approach for both funding and construction, with the expectation to bring plans to the Planning Commission and assembly this spring and targeting possible construction by 2020–2021, Ahlberg said. The planners intend for the new station to last another 40–50 years, even with projected increases in staff as the peninsula’s population continues to grow, Browning said.

“It’s a high priority of the borough administration, and for the service area, one of the things we’ve noticed is the building doesn’t meet the current design or codes for earthquakes or natural disasters,” he said. “Having a functioning public safety facility that can be counted on is paramount.”

CES is also planning to host a pancake breakfast and public dedication ceremony for the new equipment purchased via general obligation bonds approved by the voters in the October 2015 election on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at Station 1 in Soldotna from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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