New beginning for Keene firehouse

KEENE – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, state Sen. Betty Little and state Assemblyman Dan Stec joined locals here Saturday to formally open a new firehouse.

The year before last, Tropical Storm Irene ripped Keene’s firehouse in half. Much of the firefighters’ gear was lost to a raging Gulf Brook that swept away the building, along with several homes and barns, and also flooded businesses, destroyed bridges, downed trees and rolled up large sections of routes 73 and 86. As the silt-laden waters receded, they left lawns covered with boulders, mud, tree limbs and debris.

Eighteen months later, there was a brand-new, state-of-art firehouse, relocated to higher ground. The trucks stood outside, waiting for the ribbon to be cut so they could be brought in. That ribbon-cutting took place Saturday.

During those 18 months, a fire district referendum had been passed, a design that met stringent state guidelines for emergency facilities had been approved, bids had been secured, and nearly $2.8 million has been raised through insurance, capital reserve funds, a $500,000 bond, contributions, and state and federal grants.

Last August, with construction about to begin, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced its withdrawal of $340,000 of the original $680,000 in funding pledged for the project. The loss represented more than a financial setback: Original construction bids would expire, construction schedules would be set back by half a year, and overall costs would increase.

But Cuomo stepped in to allot Essex County $640,000 in state grants to cover the loss in FEMA funding and $300,000 to reimburse the Keene Fire District for the cost of acquiring land for a new station. Since then, the state contributed $185,200 in Community Block Grant funding, for a grand total of $825,200.

Alan Carey and Jody Whitney were the fire district’s two point people working with the architects, lawyers, state agencies and other officials, negotiating all aspects of the building design right down to outlet placement, paint colors and landscaping.

“They said they were going to start a fire department and needed some men, so I joined,” said Chuck Surhoff, an honorary member of the Keene Fire Department and one of two remaining charter firefighters who founded it 56 years ago. “When we started, we had an old Model T and some brooms and rakes for equipment. There has been a lot of progress and so many good guys volunteering over the years. The new building is terrific!”

“I volunteered an average of 20 to 30 hours a week – if not more, some weeks 50 hours,” said Carey, a past fire chief, now safety officer and fire district chair of the board, but always first and foremost a firefighter – according to him. “It was quite an education. Not all government agencies are as easy to deal with as ours. I learned a great deal about building construction, code requirements and many other details that I had not been aware of.”

“This is a tremendous facility,” said Essex County Sherriff Richard Cutting. “Anytime there’s an incident, firefighters are the first to respond; they leave their own homes and families to help their neighbors. This facility provides them with a base and resources they need to help support their community.”

“The governor has been our steadfast ally,” town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said. “He and his team have gone above and beyond to help us rebuild. This represents his fifth visit to Keene. He first came to assess the damage, returned to lead a statewide volunteer initiative, announced the opening of Route 73 months ahead of schedule, brought us funding to rebuild, and he’s here today to open this firehouse.”

“The state government has responded very well,” Stec said. “We are all working cooperatively. That’s the message the governor wants to deliver; it’s the message you should expect from every one of us elected officials.”

“It is a great firehouse, very appropriate, very well done and very well located,” Little said. “It will serve this community for many decades to come.

“The governor has stepped up to the plate for the North Country several times. We would not be standing here in this lovely building if the governor had not come through. When you have a governor that loves the North Country as much as he does, that’s the key.”

“This is a great facility,” Owens said. “We on the state and federal level were able to put together the funding, and the community was able to contribute the hard work. When I look around, I see the results of a great deal of cooperation.”

“This is a bigger, better and stronger firehouse than before,” Cuomo said. “We can’t always pick the tests we go through in life. Watching this community rise to the occasion is an inspiration to me; I can’t tell you how proud I am to be here and a New Yorker. After Irene, we were hit by Hurricane Sandy. It seems as if every month we are given a new test. Often when things are at their worst, people are at their best.

“I believe one of the huge challenges for this state is extreme weather going forward. We are having more extreme weather than I’ve ever seen. The oceans are warming. We know that’s creating extreme weather. We know it firsthand because we are dealing with it in this state. Hurricane Sandy, Irene, Lee – it just goes on and on. It’s a never-ending continuum of extreme weather. It’s something we have to prepare for; it’s going to happen again. We are having once-in-a-hundred-year storms every three years now. The fact is, we have extreme weather patterns. We are having more storms more often, and they are more severe. That’s a reality. We have to be prepared for it.

“Someone asked me, ‘How is the community different? How is Keene different? This may sound funny, but I think Keene is the better for what we all went through. We are in a new, shiny firehouse that’s better than the old firehouse – in some ways that’s just a metaphor. It was very painful, what we went through. It was difficult. Tears were shed, a lot of toil, a lot of hardship, but you saw people come together. You saw the resilience of the human spirit. You saw a meaning of community, a tightening of community. I believe that the community is tighter today than it was before this storm. If there was a silver lining to Irene and Lee, it made communities like Keene stronger and more vibrant.”