By Jonathan Phelps
---- — IPSWICH — Every time Engine 5 pulls in and out of the Central Fire Station, it’s a tight squeeze.
“When it comes through the door, it is within inches of the mirrors,” said fire Chief Rick Smith. “It is inches away from the ceiling.”
The firehouse was built in 1906 for horse-drawn fire apparatus, and there have been no major upgrades since. As a result, the department needs to order customized trucks to fit into the space.
There are other problems, including lack of storage and inadequate living quarters for the firefighters. The basement had to be reinforced with columns to hold the weight of modern firefighting equipment. About 10 years ago, a section of brick from an exterior wall fell to the ground, the chief said. Luckily, no one was hit.
The police station over on Elm Street isn’t much better. It was built in the 1930s as a wire storage building for the town’s Utilities Department. After being used for many years as an office, it was converted to a police station in 1986.
It is so cramped that a single room is used for report writing, a sergeant’s office, a kitchen and weapons storage. Documents are stacked in boxes in the attic because there is no proper document storage space. A photocopier is kept in the ladies’ restroom.
The prisoner cells do not meet Department of Public Health standards, Chief Paul Nikas said, and the harbor division office is tucked away in the basement next to electrical panels, a violation of building codes.
“We store equipment in the hallway because there is no room for it,” Nikas said.
Both Smith and Nikas, like many chiefs before them, are hoping for a new combined public safety building to be built on town-owned land in between Elm Street and South Main Street, near the current police station.
The proposed facility is expected to cost $17.4 million.
On the other hand, Nikas pointed out, it has cost the town approximately $190,000 in the past several years just to keep to the two buildings operational.
The Public Safety Facility Task Force was hoping to ask voters at a Special Town Meeting next month for $100,000 to study the proposed new building. But selectmen rejected the request by a 2-2 vote Tuesday night. They questioned the location, cost and neighborhood concerns.
“I’m coming back,” Nikas said, noting that the group likely will ask for the study to placed on the annual Town Meeting warrant this spring.
Several residents brought up issues with congestion on South Main Street, the fact that the proposed site is in the middle of a residential neighborhood and a possible loss of public parking.
“I understand the neighborhood concerns,” Nikas said. “That is what the design process is about — to answer those concerns.”
The conceptual plan for a new building calls for fire engines to pull out onto South Main Street, away from homes on Elm Street, Nikas said.
Nikas said the issue of replacing the town’s public safety buildings has been studied for the past 60 years. Around 15 different sites were reviewed and deemed inadequate, including the Hammett Street parking lot, the Rite Aid and Bialek Park, he said.
Plans to expand at each station’s current locations have also been looked at over the years. But the task force came to the conclusion that renovations or expansion of the current facilities is not a viable solution.
Nikas said the proposed site would be the best location to reach the majority of the town’s population within an eight-minute response time. He said the idea for a combined facility has been floated before, and no other viable sites have been identified.
“They don’t exist,” Nikas said. “It is the best available space that Ipswich has to offer.”
Entering the basement of the firehouse, Smith pointed out there are more than 90 columns holding up the trucks in the bays above. Many were added for reinforcement in recent years at the recommendation of structural engineers.
It’s only a matter of time before part of one of the trucks comes crashing through, he said.
In the truck bay, cement has been poured over the original wooden flooring. The department tries to maintain any cracks to prevent leaks and problems with rot in the basement. French drains and sump pumps have been installed in the basement to address flooding issues.
On the second floor is a main room that is used for fitness training, office work and storage. The building was not designed to have firefighters living in the space when they are on duty.
“It’s cramped,” Smith said. “Every square inch of space is used.”
Even if it were completely renovated, it would still be too small and wouldn’t meet seismic requirements, according to a report by the task force.
Another issue is cars lining up in front of the station when parents pick up children at Winthrop Elementary School. The ramp in front of the building is too short for trucks to exit safely and efficiently during emergencies. They need to drive into oncoming traffic to take a right-hand turn, Smith said.
The police station is about 7,500 square feet, but studies say the department needs 21,000 square feet, Nikas said.
Smith said the fire department is doing what it can with such an old and undersized building.
“We aren’t giving up,” he said. There is still a huge need.”
“Public safety has been neglected for 60 years,” he said. “It is our turn now.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.