History buffs might find a stroll through Woburn's fire houses quite informative, especially those venturing to the city's Central Square area, where the community's Station 3 once housed horse-drawn fire carriages.
But for Woburn's firefighters, some of whom work in buildings with leaky roofs, insufficient space for modern day fire apparatus, and long-known fire code violations, they'd prefer the community's antiquated infrastructure instead be relegated to the history books.
At the outset of this year, while delivering his annual state-of-the-city address, Mayor Scott Galvin declared the time has come for the community to address those problems.
"This year, our public safety investments are focussed squarely on addressing the aging physical facilities of our fire department. To that end, I'm pleased to report we recently formed a building committee," the mayor stated in the speech. "The [resulting feasibility study] will focus on the replacements of existing fire stations."
In a phone interview earlier this week, Galvin explained the Fire Station Building Committee will hire an architectural firm and spend the better part of the next year examining options for the major infrastructure overhaul. The process will mirror the practices of the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA), which each year contributes millions of dollars for school construction projects across the state.
According to Galvin, who six years ago commissioned a public safety study that identified major fire department deficiencies, he expects the final report will include plans for constructing a brand new central headquarters and a multi-faceted proposal for rehabilitating several other fire stations. Lastly, the final proposal will also likely call for the closure of at least one fire house — likely Station 3.
"We'll come up with detailed plans on not only where the new headquarters should go, but for what the building itself [should look like] We will also be consolidating the number of stations in the city, whether that means going to three or four [fire houses]," the mayor explained.
"We need to make sure all areas of the city have adequate response times, and the remaining stations will also need some attention because of their ages," he added.
A few weeks ago, Woburn Purchasing Agent Orazio DeLuca, who in early January posted a 227-page request for designer services (RFS) for that fire department study, recommended that Boston-based DiNisco Design Partnership be awarded the contract.
DiNisco was chosen as the top contender for the project after a Fire Station Building Committee subgroup ranked the top three offers.
"The selection committee discussed all of the proposals and based on the rating sheets…agreed that there are three proposals that we could clearly rate as the front runners," DeLuca wrote in a Jan. 17 memo. "Based on their score of 47 points out of a possible 50, the selection committee is recommending DiNisco Design as the chosen vendor."
The antiquated condition of the fire force's infrastructure and equipment was listed as a major area of concern in a public safety study commissioned by the mayor back in 2012.
That report, first released in draft-forms during the spring of 2013, was compiled by consulting firm Management Resources Inc. (MRI). With five fire houses, the public safety department's newest building, its Station 1/Headquarters facility in Woburn's South End, dates back to 1980. The oldest building, Central Square's Station 3 off of Main Street, was erected sometime near the close of the 1800s.
Describing issues with mold growth, major fire code violations with some fire houses lacking secondary building exits, and a somewhat embarrassing mention of absent smoke detectors, the authors of the MRI study concluded a major fire department overhaul was needed.
"Looking from a broad perspective, the existing Woburn fire stations are generally small, in need of significant repairs and upgrades, and do not adequately serve the needs of the fire department of the community," the consultants reported.
"Two of the stations have crew quarters on the second floor with only one means of egress, a significant life safety risk and fire code violation," the MRI panel added. "None of the stations are protected with an automatic fire sprinkler system or an automatic fire alarm system…In several of the stations, the smoke detectors were actually missing at the time of MRI's visits."
Since the MRI findings were released, the mayor has repeatedly tried to address other deficiencies that related to the fire department's equipment needs.
In fact, since 2013, Galvin's supplemental capital budgets have included millions of dollars for the acquisition of two new fire engines, a new bucket truck, a new ladder truck, new turnout gear, and two command vehicles.
However, the mayor, worried about straining the city's finances, has until this year been reluctant to act immediately on the second major component of that MRI analysis, which recommended a massive investment into building infrastructure.
Specifically, Galvin, pushing for fiscal restraint and careful planning, had in recent years referenced the city's commitment to invest nearly $70 million (including state grant money) towards a Woburn Public Library expansion and the new Hurld-Wyman School project.
However, he also vowed to address the fire department overhaul once those public construction projects were finished.
This week, Galvin acknowledged his office has been criticized for waiting to move ahead with the public safety modernization. But with nearly $25 million in time-sensitive state funding being attached to the library expansion and new school, the City Hall executive believed it financially prudent to move ahead with those competing initiatives.
"The city has a budget and [financial restraints] it has to live with. The fire stations are deficient and were always equally deserving of being addressed. But sometimes, with timing and state funding, you have to go with what you have. I would have liked to do everything at once, but from a budget and oversight perspective, that's pretty tough," said the mayor.
Under the 2013 MRI report, the city was advised to close two fire stations and build a new central headquarters.
MRI officials also strongly suggested a redeployment of manpower by having at least three firefighters assigned to each engine company and staffing two ambulances.
Though the study panel did not specify where the new headquarters should be situated, former Fire Chief Timothy Ring began advocating for a reallocation of manpower and resources towards Central Square shortly after he assumed the fire department's leadership reins in the fall of 2013.
According to Ring, who retired last July, that shift made sense in light of new construction activity and sometimes difficult traffic patterns in those dense population areas.
During a gathering of the City Council's Finance Committee back in the winter of 2014, when the aldermen were considering Galvin's first $200,000 funding request for a fire station feasibility study, the former fire chief suggested building a new headquarters at the Forest Park conservation area.
In making that move, the new public safety building would handle service calls from North Woburn and the Central Square area. Both of those fire houses would be shuttered, while the old South End headquarters would remain open as a substation.
New Fire Chief Stephen Adgate has since contended the new headquarters should at a minimum contain 16 separate living quarters for firefighters, a six-bay garage for apparatus, an administrative wing with a conference room and offices for the department's top brass and support staff, an auditorium and dispatch center, and other amenities and storage space.
Right to schematic designs
Given that the feasibility study will entail a vetting of as many as six municipally-owned land parcels for the placement of a new headquarters, Gavlin believes the hiring of DiNisco Design makes sense.
Specifically, the Boston architect, one of eight firms to bid on the new contract, underwent a similar exercise back back in 2014, when it was asked to consider the suitability of five separate locations for the new Hurld-Wyman elementary school. This fall, the community opened the new 71,000 square foot Hurld-Wyman School to students.
Two other neighborhood schools were shuttered under the arrangement.
Per the recently advertised fire station RFS, the firm awarded the service contract is expected to explore several avenues — including renovation and new construction alternatives — for modernizing the fire force's infrastructure.
Besides examining the Forest Park conservation area, the designer will also be asked to look at building the new headquarters by Woburn's Police Station near Library Park. It's unclear what other locations will be considered.
That initial study and review of options, dubbed the feasibility stage of the fire station modernization work, is expected to last roughly six months.
"The overall goal of the City of Woburn is to provide the fire department with upgraded and modern facilities. The [winning bidder will] identify facilities which can/will receive upgrades, identify additions which can be made to existing facilities, identify facilities which can be phased out, or locate a parcel of land on which to build a new state of the art fire station," the RFS explained.
The second "schematic design" phase, when the architect will prepare initial design documents for the modernization initiative and advise the Fire Station Building Committee on a preferred solution, will last roughly 14 weeks.
At that point, when the building committee is expected to vote on its top modernization option, city leaders will likely begin considering whether to appropriate funding for construction.