Keene fire hall: From broken to better

KEENE – When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in town last week, he used the new Keene fire hall as a metaphor for what he wants to do across the state: Build back better.

The old Keene fire station on Hurricane Road was ripped in half on Aug. 28, 2011, as Tropical Storm Irene swelled Gulf Brook into a raging river and swept away the part of the building that housed two truck bays and office space.

Keene fire Chief Jody Whitney told the Enterprise Monday it was pretty hard to watch.

“I’ll never forget it,” Whitney said.

He came in from work that day around 3:30 p.m., and watched the storm through the window for only about five minutes before he told his fellow firefighters to gather all the gear they could and move it out of the building.

“About 45 minutes later, it caved in,” Whitney said.

Whitney and some of the other firefighters moved to the town hall across the street, but they came back outside to watch and take pictures as half the building, along with plenty of gear, was swept away in the river.

Cuomo told a crowd gathered in AuSable Forks last week it was a horrific scene to watch the one building people were supposed to depend on be demolished in the storm.

The new facility is more sturdy, away from any rivers or streams, and is expected to withstand any future emergency.

“It is a better facility than the one that existed before,” Cuomo said.

“We shouldn’t have to worry about anything like this happening to us again,” Whitney told the Enterprise.

The new facility cost about $2.8 million, Whitney said, about $1.8 million of which was hard construction costs. The total was raised through insurance, capital reserve funds, a $500,000 bond, contributions, and state and federal grants. On Monday, Whitney said the department just got its final insurance settlement and payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s been a long two years,” Whitney said.

Whitney gave the Enterprise a tour Monday of the new building, which received its certificate of occupancy in June. The whole building is accessible to people with handicaps, and there are three handicap-accessible bathrooms in the building.

All the lights automatically shut off if no one is using the room. The building was designed with being green and energy efficient in mind, Whitney said.

On the left side of the structure, when facing it from state Route 73, there’s a large community room with tables and chairs. Whitney said an auxiliary group is starting up with people who intend to help out by doing things like cooking or bringing coffee to first responders in an emergency. He said that kind of increased community involvement will be good.

The room is equipped with 12 data, power and phone ports so up to 12 agencies like state police and Department of Environmental Conservation and others could come in and set up a command station in an emergency.

Beyond that, there’s a large kitchen equipped to feed large numbers of people.

That side of the building can be locked so members of the community can’t get into the rest of the building, for security purposes.

There’s three offices: one for Whitney, one for fire commissioners and one for assistant chiefs that hasn’t been set up yet. There’s also a separate room for dispatching and radio equipment.

Beyond that are the truck bays. There’s a large, open space with six bays for trucks – the department currently has five, so there’s room to grow. Each bay has plenty of room between to make sure no one gets caught between trucks.

There’s a 2-inch fill line that will let firefighters refill water tanks on the trucks inside, which Whitney said will be nice in the winter.

On both sides of the open space, there are large, flat-screen TVs that display an system, which lets firefighters hit a button on a website or their smart phone to let the rest of the squad know they are responding to a call. Anyone who signals that shows up on the screen, so firefighters know if they have a full crew to respond.

“It works very well,” Whitney said.

There’s a driveway, parking area and door for responders to use when they show up for a call that are separate from the parking on the community room side of the building, in case that space is being used when there’s an emergency. When responders come in the door, their turnout gear is just beyond it, hung in lockers in a side room. There’s a room for a washer and dryer for turnout gear next to that, but the department doesn’t have those machines yet.

Above the gear room is an open space to be used for training. There’s an opening on one side that will let firefighters practice getting out of a second-story window. There’s also a grate in the floor that can be removed and used to practice being lowered into a confined space.

That’s about all that’s in the room for now, but Whitney said he’s sure they’ll find more uses for it as they go.

“We’re still moving stuff in and getting acquainted with the new space,” Whitney said.

Outside, there is a 100 kilowatt generator hooked into the electric system, so the building can be self-sufficient if an emergency shuts off the power.

Whitney said the old fire station, which the town bought and may use for office space, was ill-equipped and cramped compared to the new one.

“We were jam-packed in here,” Whitney said as he showed the Enterprise what’s left of the old building.

The new facility, he said, is well designed for the department’s needs.

“I just can’t say enough,” Whitney said. “It’s nice to be here.”

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or