Dexter’s Ongoing Struggle For A New Fire Station

At the April 9, 2018 Dexter City Council meeting, a “motion for the City to build a new Fire Station within the city limits at a location other than the current Fire Station” was passed 4-3.

It’s a strange sounding motion that reflects the frustrating and contentious issue of the much-needed improvements for the Dexter Fire Department and Washtenaw County Sheriff substation currently located at 8140 Main Street in Dexter across from Mill Creek Park. Updating the outdated facilities is a struggle that has been going on for two decades.

The problem is space.

A facilities assessment by Partners in Architecture PLC outlines the need for a new firehouse, sheriff substation, and city offices.

While the present firehouse building is structurally sound, the mechanical and electrical systems are in need of upgrades or replacement. As far as overall functionality for a firehouse, there are bigger problems:

  • Fire Station Operations Areas are very limited and generally inadequate for the functions performed.
  • Bay Area does not have width necessary to provide standard recommended clearances around the vehicles.
  • Very little space is available for larger vehicle platforms.
  • Fire maintenance and preparedness functions are currently housed in the back of the bay and are too small.
  • The available area for turnout gear / deployment is too small.
  • The decontamination, fire gear maintenance, and laundering area is functionally inadequate.
  • Hose maintenance and storage areas are limited and require moving of fire vehicles to perform the work.
  • Dorm area separation and egress is not currently code compliant.
  • The training, living, record storage, and fire inspector office all share a common area and are too small.
  • The main level office, kitchen, dispatch and communications areas all share a common space at the public entry.

The sheriff’s substation located in the same building has similar functionality challenges:

  • Sheriff Substation area is just adequate for the current staffing and will not allow for expansion or added function.
  • The current open office area offers only marginal privacy for law enforcement operations and limited security.
  • The public has visual access to potentially sensitive information, causing interruption.
  • Toilet facilities are inadequate and remote from the locker area with no shower facility available.
  • There is no separate female locker area available.
  • Private interview area available is the sheriff’s private office.
  • Secure storage for weapons is a weapons locker housed in the locker room area.
  • Break room facilities, squad room, and secondary egress path are all the same room.
  • There is no adequate storage area for files, evidence, or office and maintenance supplies.
  • Communications equipment space, including the data server, is housed in an adequate area.

Thrown into the mix are Dexter’s City offices located on the second floor at 8123 Main St., above PNC Bank, which are also found to be operationally inadequate:

  • Presentation of City and work environment can be greatly improved as a place of business.
  • Office area is just adequate for the current staffing and does not provide for expansion or added function.
  • The current open office area offers marginal privacy for general operations and limited security.
  • Individual work spaces are cramped and undersized.
  • Conference room accommodations are sometimes not adequate for staff operations and public functions.
  • The public has access to other office areas when in conference room.
  • Toilet facilities are inadequate and allow access to other areas of the office when used by the public.
  • Offices do not provide space for large format training groups or public meetings.
  • Storage, technology accommodations, and work room space are inappropriate and inadequate in size.
  • Break room area is inadequate in size and accommodation.
  • Spaces are generally not code compliant or accessible.

When all the upgrades, replacements, current needs, and consideration for future growth are tabulated, the study recommends the following expansion:

  • City offices need to go from their current 2,570 sq. ft., to 7,170 sq. ft., adding 4,600.
  • Dexter’s firehouse needs to expand from the current 8,180 sq. ft., to 12,400 sq. ft., adding 4,220.
  • The sheriff’s substation needs to go from the current 1,240 sq. ft., to 2,990 sq. ft., adding 2,750.

That’s a lot of bullet points!

The question now is what to do – build new facilities or remodel the existing facilities? And herein lies the conflict, neither option is a perfect answer. All options have pros and cons. Remodeling existing facilities, while cheaper, doesn’t ensure optimal functionality or service, and could mean the City is facing the same situation in a few years as the area’s growth projections are realized.

Building a new facility is more than twice the cost with the most expensive estimates north of $7 million and costs continue to rise as time passes. Two-and-a-half acres are need for a new firehouse and sheriff’s substation and that is the challenge. There are very few options in the City of Dexter.

An empty lot at 3910 Edison St was briefly considered but is only .9 acres, about the same size as the current site. Another site considered was 7850 Second St where there is currently a warehouse. This was also ruled out as being too small at 1.76 acres.

The City already owns property along Dan Hoey Rd but this has been ruled out. Building a new facility in the Bishop Circle Industrial Park cannot be done due to regulations prohibiting the location of a city fire department there.

A parcel on the corner of Mast Road and Joy Road is large enough and the price is right at $300,000, but it is not in the City limits. Thompson Shore next door to the property however is within the City limits as are the businesses across the road. The property could be annexed, but the property has been sold since consideration and is unavailable now.

The American Legion property on Dexter-Chelsea Road has been considered. The property is not officially up for sale but the organization would be open to discussion. The property is too small and the cost of running the sewer and water to the site is as much as the property itself ruling it out as a possibility.

Across from Mill Creek Middle School, on Dexter-Ann Arbor Road is the 5.47 acre MAVD property. Two of these acres have already been sold to Rainbow Childcare which will begin construction soon. This still leaves 3.47 acres, enough space, for a new firehouse and sheriff’s substation. This is the last feasible piece of property in the City of Dexter.

Aerial view of the MAVD property on Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd

It is potentially relocating the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Branch to the MAVD property that the City Council is wrestling with. Dexter Mayor, Shawn Keough, has very clear ideas regarding a new fire station. In his April 9 report to Dexter City Council, Mayor Keough stated,

“Moving the City of Dexter fire station from its current location to the Dexter Ann Arbor Road location will increase response times to the majority of the DAFD District by at least 2 minutes.  I don’t see any reason to do this.   Increased response times are not in the best interest of the City or the two Townships that DAFD supports.” (his emphasis)

Mayor Keough also pointed out in the report that of the approximately 800 runs last year by the DAFD, 350 of those responses were to Dexter Township and over 300 runs to Webster Township. If the fire station is located at the MAVD property it would require traveling across approximately 80% of the City before it reached the borders of those communities. That leaves around 150 runs to the City itself.

“What’s getting mixed up here is that we are a regional fire department,” Mayor Keough told me in a phone conversation. “Lengthening the response time and complicating the route through city neighborhoods to get to Dexter and Webster Townships just doesn’t make sense to me when those are the areas most served. Ten-percent of calls come from The Cedars alone. Lengthening the response time by a couple of minutes is a big deal to someone having a heart episode or other emergency.”

“Everybody on the council agrees we need to improve our fire station, sheriff’s station, and city offices,” he says. “What we’re challenged with coming to agreement on is how best to do that.”

Mayor Keough favors a plan that would “remodel the existing firehouse and then we can build the city offices and sheriff’s substation anywhere.”

“Response time should be the number one criteria in moving forward,” he says. “The existing fire station can be remodeled. The study shows that.”

There is no easy answer. Dexter began searching for a new location for their firehouse twenty years ago in 1998. Nothing could be agreed upon then and the issue was tabled. It came to attention again in 2006 but was stymied then as well. More recently, the City of Dexter contracted Partners in Architecture PLC in 2016 to do a feasibility study for remodeling the current fire hall or for relocating the fire department to a new location. Professional analysis has not made the decision any easier.

Councilman Paul Cousins has been wrestling with this problem longer than anyone. He was on the original search committee in 1998 and has been involved with the issue of a new firehouse over the years since then.

“The (Partners in Architecture) study came down to one of two choices,” Paul explains. “Either you remodel the present fire hall or you build a new one.”

Paul sees a remodel of the current fire station as problematic in that there is not enough room to expand without encroaching on the park and playground behind the building. “The lot is just too small,” he says.

“That fire station was built in 1956,” he says. “Remodeling is expensive. Not as expensive as building a new fire hall, but in the end you still have a fire hall that isn’t adequate much less expandable for future community growth.”

“The question is, ‘Where do you build the fire hall?’” Paul says. “The rules are that the main station has to be in the city. That means we have to find a space that is large enough for an adequate fire hall and think about one for the future that can be expandable.”

Councilman Cousins is in favor of building a new fire hall and sheriff substation on the MAVD property for a couple of reasons. 1) It is the last piece of property available that is large enough, and 2) The property is centrally located to the entire City of Dexter.

“I think MAVD is the best spot we have that’s available,” Paul says. “Does it cause additional run time? Yes, but it covers the City of Dexter more strategically than even the current fire hall and will cover the region adequately.”

“And heaven forbid,” he adds “If there is ever an incident at the schools, I think it is better to have Sheriff’s Department and first responders down there closer to them.”

The person who runs the fire department, Dexter Fire Chief, Robert Smith told me in an email,

“There are many data points to look at when determining a site for a fire station. It’s all good data to use when options are available to build a station.”

“With that said, to make a long explanation short, Dexter has a problem with buildable space. A site of at least 2.5 acres is necessary for a modern station. I’m sure some have indicted reasons for building in one place or another, but they all become irrelevant if you don’t have available sites.”

“As for remodeling the current station, it has the same problem. The space is not big enough to remodel and add the necessary capabilities of a modern fire station. It also presents a tremendous safety issue with the traffic patterns.”

With the motion passed, the City Council is now forced to move forward.

What are your thoughts about it all?

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