Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 20, 2020
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) has discussed the need for a new firehouse at their annual strategic planning retreats for at least the last three years. The problems with Fire Station #2, located in the vicinity of S. Fletcher Avenue and Sadler Road, are many. The structure is more than 40 years old and undersized for current and future needs. It has a low ISO rating and does not meet current firefighter cancer regulations. With the physical growth of the city southward, the a new site at the airport could provide for increased funding opportunities as well.
The FBCC last year adopted Resolution 2019-80 for a variety of preliminary efforts related to a proposed fire station at the Airport. The proposed fire station will house personnel and equipment currently positioned at Fire Station #2. The original effort resulted in a design to the 30% threshold. The Airport Advisory Commission has reviewed and commented on the proposal.
At their May 19, 2020 Regular Meeting the FBCC approved on a 4-1 vote Resolution 2020-71 authorizing an expenditure of $172,500 to Passero Associates for design and preconstruction work on a new fire station to be located on airport property. Although all commissioners acknowledged the need for a new fire station, Commissioner Mike Lednovich voted to oppose the Resolution on the grounds that it was premature in light of the uncertainties of the near term economic situation.
The current intent is to complete design and commence construction in the next fiscal year.
Passero Associates, LLC will provide professional design services for the proposed dual-purpose (City and airport) Fire Station at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport under Work Order 19-86A. Deliverables for this proposed next phase include: bidding and construction documents; completed St. Johns River Water Management District stormwater permit; Florida Department of Environmental Protection wastewater permit; site development review; FAA Obstruction Evaluation/Airport Airspace Analysis; and City building permit.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger reminded commissioners that proceeding with design for the fire station at this time does not necessarily mean that construction will proceed, especially if the economy falters. He said that the proposed location is in keeping with levels of service (response time) prescriibed in the City’s Comprehensive Plan. “We need to get out of that beach fire station,” Kreger said. “I’ve been in that fire station, and we need to do something.”
Commissioner Chip Ross agreed with Lednovich that commissioners have a fiduciary responsibility to insure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. He acknowledged that commissioners have received several emails from constituents with concerns over timing, location and costs. Ross said, “But I also believe that we have a moral responsibility not mentioned in any of the public comments or by commissioners. The current building, built in 1978, is obsolete. I have been there, and it is disheartening. It does not meet the current firefighters cancer regulations.” Ross explained that diesel fumes from the bays accumulate and get drawn into the air conditioning for the firefighters’ living space. “It makes it very difficult for the City to hire female firefighters, because of the dormitory nature of the living arrangements, where bunks for men and women are separated by a sheet arrangement.”
“But more importantly,” Ross continued, “these are the people who are going to show up to pull you and your family out of a burning building. These are the First Responders who are going to show up to extract you from a car wreck. Or take you to the hospital when you can’t breather from your COVID infection. These are the people who show up when you are having a heart attack to get you treated in a timely manner. These First Responders assist you, your family, and our community, often at risks to their own health and at times their lives.
“As a community and a Commission we have a moral responsibility to take care of our First Responders so they can take care of us. This work order is the next step in providing a decent, healthy working environment for our First Responders. It’s our community’s responsibility to figure out how to fund this without raising taxes. And I believe if we work together we can meet that challenge. And I also believe that the City should work with the County to help fund this project.”
Lednovich said, “I agree 100 percent with Vice Mayor Kreger and Commissioner Ross. Our firefighters deserve it. … I support the fire station, I support the facility. My only question is, should we be spending $172,500 when we don’t know the financial future of the city. That is my one and only question on this issue. We are in uncharted territory; we don’t know what the future holds. We might spend the money for plans and never be able to build it because of a financial crisis.” He cited money spent on plans for a waterfront park that has never materialized.
Commissioner Phil Chapman said that Fire Chief Ty Silcox’s plans for a new fire station are not extravagant. He also expounded on the dangers firefighters encounter from carcinogens given off during fires. “Our firefighters walk into those clouds of carcinogens to save you, your house and your things.” Chapman noted the inadequacies of current facilities for cleaning gear and equipment. “Our firefighters deserve this fire station. If we find we can’t afford to build it, we’ll need to address that at the time. One of the things we are really good at is dragging our feet. At some point we have to pick them up and lay them down and move forward.”
Following the vote, Mayor John Miller said that while there is concern in the community today over the impact of the Coronavirus, he wanted to allay any concerns that the city might be unprepared for financial fallout. He said, “Our City Manager and our Finance Department are well aware of the financial uncertainty right now. I want the public out there to know that we have people in City government who live, eat and breathe financial matters to insure that despite what may happen, the City is going to be okay. When I hear concerns that people believe we are not thinking ahead, I don’t want the public to think that we are just rolling along [without considering what may lie ahead]. I encourage people to visit the City website and contact City staff with any concerns. When I look at social media sites and see all the erroneous material posted, I encourage people to call the right people so that they can sleep better at night knowing that the City is in very good hands.”