District airs worry over proposed facility

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Neighborly: Berne Fire District Chief Richard Guilz Jr. speaks to a crowd at the Berne firehouse on Tuesday, March 4, held to dispel what district officials said was misinformation about a large project for new facilities in East Berne. The projects are years away from breaking ground, officials said, but a new East Berne firehouse and intermunicipal training facilities are proposed for the 25-acre site along Route 443. A structure meant for live-fire exercises, a not-for-profit separate from the fire district, would be located in the back of the trapezoid-shaped property, in the lower right corner of the drawing, Guilz said, with parking, classrooms, and the fire house closer to the road.

BERNE — A petition and rumors about proposed training facilities for fire companies and a shooting range for the sheriff’s office led Berne Fire District officials to hold a public meeting on Tuesday, where they announced that the range is no longer being considered for the site on Route 443 and answered questions from residents.

Officials also said during the meeting that tires burned in car-fire training at the site could be removed after residents expressed concerns for asthmatics and about the smell of burning rubber.

“We truly want to be good neighbors here,” Richard Guilz Jr., chief of the Berne Fire District, told the crowd, underscoring the purpose of the meeting.

Residents — about 40 attended — had concerns mostly about the impact of the training facilities on local businesses, the air, and the tax base. The facilities would include a three-story structure capable of withstanding and containing fires for training firefighters.

Residents wondered why the live-fire training couldn’t take place on more secluded land owned by the district on Long Road in East Berne. It is currently used for storage and is still a possible site for a shooting range for police, officials said.

To save on costs, Guilz said, infrastructure, like water, septic, and electrical systems, would be shared between the future East Berne firehouse planned for the Route 443 property and the fire-training facilities. He also said it would be in a prime location for the live-fire structure, along a state route capable of withstanding fire apparatus.

Officials stressed that the proposal is in its early stages and years away from construction. In response to residents, they said they hadn’t yet considered whether or not emergency supplies for disasters would be stored on the property, and they could not assure that they wouldn’t accept an offer from the Albany County Sheriff to purchase a piece of the property.

“No one has made an offer. They have expressed an interest,” Mary Alice Molgard, a fire district commissioner, said of the sheriff’s office, “but the commissioners have not made that decision one way or another.”

The petition opposing the range was distributed for people to sign on the backside of a Nov. 7 Enterprise article about plans for the training facilities under consideration. James Rissacher, who owns property directly behind the fire district’s, said he collected the petitions and counted about 150 signatures.

The petition listed the following reasons to oppose the proposal on Route 443: noise, visual, and air pollutoin, changes to the tax base, devaluation of neighboring properties, proximity to the Helderberg Christian School, and “misappropriation of tax dollars.”

Molgard said during the meeting that preliminary sound tests had been done at the property in the fall, with around 65 decibels produced by five or six officers shooting.

Almost three quarters of the audience on Tuesday were members of rural fire companies, said Molgard. Still, she said, she was happy with the turnout.

“We would have had this meeting eventually,” said Molgard at its end, after nearly three hours. “This pushed us to do it earlier.”

Training space

The Enterprise article described the proposal, in talks between the Albany County Rural Fire Chiefs Association and the sheriff’s office, to site a live-fire structure, a shooting range, and storage and classroom facilities at the district’s newly acquired property. The sheriff’s office and Hilltown fire companies are in need of dedicated space to train and store equipment.

Hilltown firefighters now train in similar structures, also called training towers, of nearby departments in Colonie, Bethlehem, Guilderland Center, and Schoharie. Their availability, however, has waned in recent years, Molgard said.

With a dedicated tower for rural companies in Albany County, officials hope more fire fighters can be trained to work inside of burning buildings.

Jason Smith, an assistant chief for the East Berne Fire Company, said it took four-and-a-half years for him to become an interior firefighter because he couldn’t be scheduled for classes.

The site would also be necessary for Firefighter 1, a basic class for fire officers, and the Emergency Vehicle Operating Course for drivers of fire apparatus.

“Forget about interior firefighters — we’ll have none,” said Stephen Ryder, past chief of the Medusa Fire Company, referring to a shortage of volunteers and training opportunities.

Each interior-structure firefighter trains for live fires three times each year, said Scott Duncan, chief of the East Berne Fire Company. At least 11 fire departments would be interested in using the training facilities in East Berne.

Accounting for weather extremes throughout the year, the facility would be used for live burns about eight months out of the year, said Kevin Flensted, chief of the Westerlo Fire Company.

The 24.67-acre property in East Berne was purchased by the Berne Fire District — which encompasses both East Berne and Berne companies — for $135,000 last summer, giving the district the opportunity to build a new firehouse for the East Berne Fire Company and what officials have said is a badly needed place to expose firefighters to fire conditions and meet numerous national training standards.

“The reality of it is, we desperately need a fire training facility in the Hilltowns,” said Guilz. “It’s something we’ve needed for 30 years.”

Guilz said he, Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier, and Sheriff Craig Apple discussed the site in August, but the shooting range was always a “conceptual idea” with no agreements. He said Crosier has supported the project and suggested partnering with the sheriff.

The shooting range was a key piece of the sheriff’s interest in the property, though his office participates in emergency-vehicle courses and search-and-rescue exercises, as well. Duncan said the sheriff was looking for a 50-yard range for handgun training. Apple suggested earlier that he could help fund the project with drug seizure money and federal grants.

The district was deeded property on Long Road by John Stempel. It cannot give up ownership of the land, Molgard said, or it reverts back to the ownership of the Stempel family.

Questions answered

After Molgard and Guilz spoke about the need for the facility and tentative plans for it, residents asked questions about how frequently it would be used and what it would look like.

Guilz said the smoke coming from the facility would be “very, very minimal.”

Duncan listed the materials that cannot be burned for firefighter training, under National Fire Protection Association standards: pressure-treated wood, rubber, and plastic, and straw or hay treated with pesticides or harmful chemicals. He said the live-fire exercises are limited to clean-burning and controlled materials, like wooden pallets and hay.

For car fires, the standards are different, Duncan said, and allow rubber tires to be part of the exercise to prevent the magnesium wheels from burning.

“We can fix the tire problem,” Duncan said of putting a car on blocks, responding to concerns about the smell and local residents with breathing problems. Duncan said each car is burned for multiple fire-training exercises.

The property, at 792 Helderberg Trail, borders a gas station and residential properties, though, Guilz said, the proposed location of the training facility would be on a corner of the property away from the road and likely not visible from Route 443 or the gas station. Parking, classroom facilities, and the firehouse are planned closer to the road.

He said trees on the property won’t be logged for now, since some may be needed for concealing structures and little money can be earned from selling them.

Paperwork has been submitted, Guilz said, to designate the training facilities as a not-for-profit with a board of directors, a separate entity from the Berne Fire District. Guilz said the training facility wouldn’t use any local property taxes but grants and corporate donations. A management team made up of members from the rural chiefs association would oversee the operation of the training facilities.

Within half a mile are several businesses, like the Maple Inn restaurant, the East Berne Post Office, and the Helderberg True Value hardware store.

A resident of Beaver Dam Road about three miles from the site, Kevin Young, said he is in favor of a larger firehouse and a training facility, but worried that regular live burns in the hamlet could discourage the influx of tourists that come to nearby businesses and Warners Lake in the summer.

“It’s not the pollution, it’s the perception,” Young told a firefighter who noted the smoke made by campers on nearby Warners and Thompsons lakes.

“I’m pleased as can be,” Young said of the canceled shooting range during a break in the meeting. He said it was his biggest worry, noting Helderberg Christian School is down the road.

He questioned whether 25 acres are necessary. The land will no longer be counted among the town’s taxable, assessed property since it is now publicly owned.

“We think the property looks a whole lot better than it did,” Molgard said when asked about concerns that neighboring properties would be devalued.

Duncan said 1,140 tons of soil contaminated by oil was removed from the site using labor from fire department members and under the supervision of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Hundreds of used oil filters were taken out of the ground, an abandoned house was demolished, and several Dumpsters of debris were taken away, he said. Since the district bought the property, Duncan said, a rotted culvert pipe blocking water drainage was also cleared away.

The total annual budget for the Berne Fire District is about $350,000, levied in property taxes from residents within its district. It includes some Knox properties, since fire-district boundaries don’t follow town lines.

Molgard said the property where the current East Berne firehouse stands would be sold.

“Save money, because I’m retired, I’m on a fixed income,” advised Michael Vincent, a former fire commissioner, talking to district officials about designing the future firehouse.

Molgard expects the next public meeting regarding the site to take place when the designs for its facilities have been prepared. The firehouse won’t be built until at least as early as the bond on the Berne firehouse is paid off, Guilz said. Molgard estimated that it has about a $35,000 balance, to be completely paid off in 2017.

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