St. Lawrence County fire officials hoping to build $450,000 training facility in West Potsdam; donations sought
Sunday, December 11, 2011 - 7:56 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

WEST POTSDAM -- St. Lawrence County fire and emergency medical officials are trying to build a new $450,000 live fire training facility with private donations, grants, help from legislators, and loan options.

After being set ablaze more than 300 times over about 30 years, fire officials say they need to replace the old fire training building in West Potsdam because it is no longer safe.

About three years ago, before a live fire training, “an OFPC boss was here to observe a Firefighter I class and inspected the building,” said Dale Gardner of Canton, co-chair of the St. Lawrence County Fire Training Facility, Inc., the organization formed to get the building put up.

“He took one look at the ceiling and said, ‘You’re done. You’re not going in there. It’s not safe. This building is coming down.”

Since then firefighting classes that had used the West Potsdam fire training building have been held around the North Country, at similar facilities in Westville, Martinsburg, Dry Hill and Fort. As tough as it has been to get young people to commit to training to be a volunteer firefighter, the travel proved to be too much for some of the trainees.

“Each class is about 20 students. There would be four instructors, and a safety team of six experienced firefighters. We would take two engines, a pumper, and an ALS ambulance. All that had to go to each training fire.”

Moving all that around the North Country inspired fire personnel in St. Lawrence County to begin planning and work on a new building at the old site on Blanchard Road.

The old tradition was that firefighters trained on what were called “acquisition structures.”

“Someone who had an old barn or camp that was broken down, that they weren’t using, that they were tired of paying the taxes on, would sign off on it. ‘You burn it and I’ll give you a case of beer,’ they would say. That’s how it used to work.”

But training standards have since been developed that require more training and better supervision than there were under the old system.

“They need to train, and they have to have a fire to train,” Gardner said.

The first training building at West Potsdam was designed by a contractor with no help from an engineer or architect. It was built with durability in mind, without a lot of attention to other factors.

“No engineer, no architect, no code,” Gardner said. Still, it helped firefighters in the county get experience with a real fire without the urgency of a real emergency.

But over time the structure decayed. Ceiling panels were coming down and there were other signs of wear and tear. “The concrete in there would get heated up and then got wet, making steam that expands to 1700 times the volume of the water,” Gardner said. That was making the concrete flake away.

Meanwhile, new training standards were written by state and federal authorities and the National Fire Protection Association.

Training in a Firefighter I course today includes 23 or 24 three-hour sessions, Gardener said, with “some sit down and some hands-on sessions.” The hands-on work is for things like how to raise a ladder, how to knock down a door safely, and how to get in and out safely.

“We need to give them a live fire experience. Otherwise it would be like driver ed without putting you in a car.”

Garner speaks from personal experience. In addition to being with the fundraising organization, he is a St. Lawrence County Deputy Fire Coordinator, a state fire instructor, and is working for the state Division of Homeland Security Office of Fire Prevention Control and Safety.

Along with new standards for training over the years have come standards for what are now called live fire training buildings, to be designed with the new training standards in mind, including enhanced safety features.

“We have to have a building we can burn in, and it’s safe to burn in, and you can escape if you have to. We’d like to do it once, do it right, and not have to worry about it again for another 30 years,” Gardner said.

“If we can raise $50,000 this winter, we can pour concrete and get started. And we’d like to get the rest done in the next 12 to 18 months.”

Gardner says he doesn’t think they can raise the entire $450,000 with private donations, “ so we’re trying to be creative. We hope to finance what we can’t raise, up to $200,000.”

Applying for grants through normal channels is a problem, Gardner says, because “they are usually for a particular fire department, and we’re not a fire department. We’re hoping our congressman and state representatives can help with member items.”

Gardner says he recalls that U.S. Secretary of the Army John McHugh, when he was a state senator, helped get funding for a classroom attached to the old training building.

Gardner said there have already been significant donations, from the West Potsdam Fire Department who sold the new corporation the land for $1, and a survey team from Wilhelm Chatelle and Town of Canton has donated their work. Atlantic Testing in Canton has donated their work on soil testing at the site. “And Andy Silver has donated the legal work – a lot of staff hours. Those things are adding up to help tremendously.”

The new plan calls for what are called burn panels, with steel panels inside. And there will be ways to get out in a hurry if they have to.

If you can be of help with this project, you are encouraged to contact Gardner at 386-1913, Robert Kerr at 384-4678, or the St. Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services at 379-2240.