Two coastal Hancock County towns are grappling with the need for newer, larger facilities for their fire departments.
Orland and Castine are both considering building new fire stations to replace their aging and deficient ones, but with the costs associated with meeting modern building codes and firefighting standards, neither of the small communities expect them to come cheap.
“We really need something, but it’s very expensive,” said Bob Conary, the Orland fire chief.
Orland’s station is a metal building that’s too small to house the fire trucks of today – forcing the department to order custom-made smaller trucks that can cost as much as $100,000 more than standard trucks.
Built in 1974, the station sits on a flat, low-lying lot that makes it difficult to drain and prone to flooding. Without a proper drainage system, it’s hard to clean off the engines in the colder months, causing them to corrode faster. The station also lacks an exhaust system to funnel out toxic fumes. And when it’s time to clean up after calls, staff often have to go home because the building doesn’t have a proper washroom.
The station could never be built now how it was back then.
“There’s just a lot of requirements now that weren’t there even 20 years ago,” Conary said, referring to current building and safety codes.
Castine’s fire station was built around 1960 and has many of the same issues.
“The current facility is outmoded, constrained and lacks most of the features required or recommended for 21st century public safety buildings,” Castine’s architect wrote in a 2020 report. “It is completely insufficient in required square footage for fire department operations.”
The volunteer department has to shoehorn its four vehicles into a station that was built to handle three much smaller ones. Like Orland, the trucks barely can squeak in and out of the station doors. The department’s tanker is wedged between two pump trucks and can only be driven in and out if a fire engine is moved out of the way. Castine also lacks a decontamination area, office space and fire suppression systems.
Neither building complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The issue isn’t isolated to Orland and Castine, which both have about 25 volunteer members.
Other small Maine communities either currently or have relied on aging infrastructure that will eventually have to come up to modern standards when they are replaced, according to officials.
Orrington rejected a $3.5 million proposal for a new public safety building in 2018, possibly over the cost, before approving a scaled back version that opened last year.
The town of Mount Desert was considering a new station in Northeast Harbor so it could convert to a full-time department and take on ambulance services. But a price tag of about $7 million caused town officials to consider other options, said Durlin Lunt, the town manager.
It’s now considering a $4.6 million expansion to the Northeast Harbor station and a $500,000- to $600,000 expansion to its Somesville station. Mount Desert fire Chief Michael Bender said cost was a significant factor in the rejection of some of the earlier proposals, along with the location.
These costs can be especially hard on rural communities that have all-volunteer departments, said Tom Gutow, the assistant fire chief in Castine. In Orland, last year’s fire budget was about $55,000.
“Communities aren’t used to it costing that much,” Gutow said.
Conary in Orland hoped that the department could land some grants or government funding.
Renovating Castine’s or Orland’s station would also be tough, according to the towns’ studies. In Orland, for example, the concrete slab that the station is built on would need to be demolished and replaced with a taller one to allow for better drainage. And the department would still have to make other costly changes like replacing walls, raising the roof and installing new exhaust, lighting and other systems. It would be a cost-prohibitive measure to update what’s there.
Still, the rough estimate of $3 to $3.5 million received this year for a new Orland fire station was about twice as much as officials were expecting due to rising building and material costs, according to Conary.
“That’s what happens,” said Lester Stackpole, an Orland Selectman. “Prices are going up and up and up.”
Nonetheless, the departments need better facilities.
The design process is still in the conceptual phase in Orland and officials hope the actual price of a new fire station will be lower. Stackpole said the town would look for ways to offset the price and is currently preparing a request for quotes to get a design-build concept. A location hasn’t been determined.
The study of the Castine department suggested building a new 11,000-plus square foot building near the Maine Maritime Academy. The academy supplies about half of the department’s volunteers during the school year.
The design process will get underway after the town evaluates three locations, including a property town meeting voted to buy on Battle Avenue earlier this year, the existing station site, and town land near the town transfer station, said Castine town manager Shawn Blodgett.
It’s unclear how much the new fire station will cost in Castine, but it’s expected to be high.
“We don’t have refined numbers,” Blodgett said. “In every guess, it’s an expensive proposition.”