Aspen’s firefighting family is home again
ASPEN – With little fanfare or attention paid to the historic moment, the Aspen Fire Protection District put its downtown station back into service last week after nearly two years of rebuilding.
The majority of the department’s volunteer firefighters showed up the morning of Saturday, Jan. 23, for the once-in-a-lifetime photo op. They posed in front of engine 6 and truck 1, which were permanently relocated to the new facility.
“As soon as it was practical, we wanted to bring that aerial into town,” said Aspen Fire Chief Daryl Grob, adding the aerial truck’s 75-foot ladder is crucial for emergency response to downtown’s tallest buildings.
For the past several years, Grob has lived and breathed the inner workings of the city’s approval process, and the intricacies of architecture, construction, project management and the other thousand-and-one details that go into building a multimillion dollar, 15,000-square-foot facility.
“It’s weird to stand here,” he said as he stood inside the station’s large engine bay looking out the doors onto Hopkins Avenue, where the fire protection district’s main downtown station has been located for 58 years – except for the past 21 months.
Construction on the new facility began shortly after the old station, built in 1952, was demolished in April 2008. Most firefighters will say that while the old facility was efficient, it was outdated and certainly not equipped for rapid response.
“It was so obviously overdue,” Grob said, adding the old one-story station was about a quarter of the size of the new one and had antiquated infrastructure and equipment.
“It’s going to be iconic and will be here for a very long time indeed,” Grob said of the new station. “Nobody is as psyched as I am.”
Dwayne Romero, who serves on the fire protection district board, agrees.
“The need was evident,” he said. “The [old] facility was obsolete and a hindrance to service …
“The goal was to meet the needs of the community for the next 50 years with the new facility.”
Envisioning a new facility started six years ago with casual conversations among district staff, volunteers and the board. Soon, it became a full-flown process and in 2005, a COWOP (convenience and welfare of the public) task force convened to hammer out the details.
And there were many. The first real debate was whether the fire district should be headquartered on Main Street at the city-owned Zupancis property or in its traditional downtown location.
“The district was very aware of its position in the community,” said Aspen Community Development Director Chris Bendon. “Main Street was better logistically but not as symbolic of the district’s position in the community.”
The group also considered underground parking, a fourth floor and affordable housing on site. None of these options were found viable.
The COWOP delivered a recommendation to the Aspen City Council in 2006 that the facility should be built in its current form – 42 feet tall and architecturally prominent on the street. The council approved the plan and then it was time to ask voters to approve a $14 million bond to pay for the downtown facility and the North 40 substation near the Aspen Business Center, which has served as temporary headquarters since 2008.
Voters overwhelming approved the ballot question and there was no formal opposition to it. Compared to most projects, the approval process was quick.
“There’s less emotion with the fire department,” Bendon said of the community’s support of the volunteer-based organization.
There was a lot of thought put into the architectural design of the new station – it had to meet the goals of being accessible to the community, pay homage to the department’s history and provide the highest level of emergency response.
“You think all you need is a box for trucks but it’s more than that,” Bendon said, adding the group designing the facility met for months in the old cinder-block firehouse that originally was a two-car garage.
“The whole place was dripping was history,” he said. “We all sat there and looked around and said you’ve got to carry this forward.
“I’m really proud of the department for taking into account the relationship with the community and incorporating it into the design.”
The bay doors, which are nearly all windows, provide a glimpse of the building’s purpose from the street, and a three-story museum inside will pay homage to the past.
“We are the fire department of 2010, but what we wanted to do was tip our hats to the old one,” Grob said.
Romero added that the old station wasn’t inviting for the public.
“In the past, people would have never stepped foot in that space, but now it’s more engaging,” he said. “It’s a vital community resource and it confirms what’s important about Aspen.”
There will be a reception area open to the public, including a three-story museum housing the department’s historic hand trucks and fire equipment dating back to the 19th century. There also will be public education displays geared for kids. The new station even has a historic fire pole built in. The museum space has large windows which overlook the bays where the engines are parked.
The bays have four apparatus that allow volunteers to service the fleet inside the building, which is a dramatic improvement over the old facility, Grob said.
The third floor holds the training room, which is wired with the highest information technology available, and will be cued into the city and county systems. During large incidents – such as 2008’s New Year’s Eve bomb scare, wildfires and plane crashes – the room will function as headquarters for emergency operations, Grob said.
There’s also a health and fitness center for volunteers to work out, and administrative offices for the staff. Locker rooms could someday be converted into shift quarters.
The facility and its amenities are designed to make firefighters and community members feel welcome to spend free time there.
“There wasn’t anything in terms of community access,” Grob said about the old station.
Most of what is prized about the old building is preserved in the new one, Grob said, particularly the open area in front of the station, which has become a community gathering place for everything from Fourth of July parties to high school car-wash fundraisers. The new station also retains Aspen’s signature noon whistle.
The popular siren has been returned to the fire station from its temporary location on top of the Aspen Elks building and now goes off every day at noon.
The downtown fire station is one of four stations within the fire protection district, which serves 87 square miles in Pitkin County. Much of the district is comprised of geographically different areas ranging from downtown Aspen to sparse residential and mountainous terrain.
Until the late 1990s, the downtown location was the only station within the district. But as traffic increased, Grob said it was no longer effective to only have one station east of the S Curves. In 1996, the substation at Aspen Village was built and shortly after that, the one in Woody Creek went into service.
“For the longest time, we felt we could serve both sides of Castle Creek with one firehouse,” Grob said. “Plus, we have a respectable volunteer population on both sides and the substations allow for better, timely response.”
With the voter-approved bond money, fire officials bought a few acres of land at the Aspen Business Center from owner John McBride for $1.7 million and built the North 40 substation, a 15,000-square-foot building that cost roughly $4.7 million.
The high-tech facility at the ABC was more than adequate to temporarily house the bulk of Aspen’s fire trucks and offices over the past two years. It also serves as an important staging area in the event of a major upvalley disaster such as a wildfire or accident at the airport, Grob said.
Romero said all four of the stations have their purpose and are part of a larger delivery system to provide quick response over a broad geographical footprint.
“It’s vital to have these outposts,” he said. “It’s a hub and spoke system.”
Voters 58 years ago agreed to create a local fire protection district supported by an ad valorem property tax levy.
This year, the district’s budget is $1.9 million, which is generated from the mill levy. That money pays for administrative staff, equipment, gear, training and all other aspects of running a volunteer fire department.
“It’s an inexpensive model,” Romero said. “There is not a large, fully paid staff and I think the community recognizes that.”
Bendon said the fire protection district was methodical in ensuring the bond money was properly managed and well-spent.
“They took it very seriously,” he said. “There was not a dollar more than what they needed.”
While two engines have moved into the facility, the district’s 38 volunteer firefighters and seven paid administrative staff members won’t officially move in for few months as the final touches of the building’s interior are being worked on.
Once the facility is fully operational, a grand opening will likely occur in the spring, Grob said.
Bendon provided one last thought on the new fire station and the district that runs it.
“They did break city law; they were on time and on budget,” he joked.
Well, almost. Grob said the building cost about $20,000 more than what was anticipated.
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Eagle County will go to Stage 2 fire restrictions Friday, joining Pitkin County and other state and federal lands in the area.