AUGUSTA — Construction of a fire station in the growing commercial hot spot of north Augusta could start as soon as next summer, now that voters have approved $3.6 million in bonds.

The new station on Leighton Road will be home to both fire trucks and at least one ambulance with firefighter/emergency medical technicians on hand to speed response times to what has become one of the busiest parts of the city.

Fire Chief Roger Audette said currently the response time to the north Augusta area, which includes the Marketplace at Augusta, Augusta Civic Center and Central Maine Commerce Center, ranges from seven to ten minutes, well above what Audette said is the department’s goal of responding to calls within three and five minutes.

“Our goal is to be anywhere within three to five minutes of when a call goes out, and you can’t do that unless you have a facility in the neighborhood where we need to be,” Audette said Friday. “Now, response times are seven to 10 minutes up that way. By putting a station up there, we’ll meet national recommendations, which is a five minute response time.”

Battalion Chief Steve Leach, a 26-year firefighter for the city, said with the commercial development continuing to grow in north Augusta, a new station was needed in that part of the city.

“It’s very good for the department and good for the businesses and the public that live in north Augusta,” Leach said. “It’ll provide that part of the community with a fire truck and ambulance and provide them with much quicker response times. Overall it’s a plus for everybody.”

Augusta voters approved bonding $3.6 million for the new fire station and $1 million for a new multi-purpose fire truck to replace the city’s 20-year-old ladder truck last week by a vote of 5,143 to 2,432.

Audette noted the last major investment in new fire station facilities in Augusta was in 1965, when the Western Avenue station, where the ladder truck is kept now, was built.

Audette is hopeful construction of the new station will start sometime in the summer of 2015. Construction is expected to take 12 to 18 months, so the new station could be ready for use as early as sometime in 2016.

A 2008 study of the city’s fire station locations, staffing and emergency response times by Matrix Consulting Group recommended the city build a new fire station in the Civic Center Drive area near Interstate 95 to speed response times to what was even then a growing commercial area that has continued to see growth, including the construction of a new MaineGeneral Medical Center in the area.

In the last four years, Audette said, the number of calls in north Augusta has increased 61 percent. So far this year, there have been 780 calls for firefighters, ambulances or both in north Augusta. Audette said over the same part of the year in 2011, there were 480 such calls.

In addition to the new hospital, new stores have been built at the Marketplace at Augusta, the Maine National Guard plans to build a new, 100,000-square-foot headquarters building, NRF is expanding its warehouse on Gabriel Drive, and roughly 1,000 people work at the Central Maine Commerce Center.

The same consultant’s report described the city’s existing fire stations as outdated and cramped, further slowing response times because they aren’t set up to allow firefighters to get their trucks rolling within one minute of a call coming in.

Leach said the new station should address the consultant’s recommendation for a station to serve the growing area.

Audette said it “feels pretty good” to have voters approve what he described as a long-overdue upgrade to the city’s fire facilities.

“It feels good to know we’re going to be moving forward to put the fire department where it should be, as far as operations go,” Audette said. “Facilities are a big part of what we do. It’s important we be in the neighborhood.”

Audette said the new station should also result in a reduction in insurance premiums for residents and businesses in the area. He said they should call their insurance agent to ask for an adjustment once the new station is built. The decrease would likely be small for most homeowners, but could be sizable for owners of larger, multi-million dollar properties in the area.

Leach noted the city’s existing ladder truck can’t be kept at the city’s historic Hartford Station headquarters because it is too heavy for the floor there, which sits over a basement. Instead, the ladder truck is kept at the city’s Western Avenue station. Audette said the Western Avenue station will probably be closed when the new station is complete.

Hartford, built in 1920, will remain the department’s headquarters. The Bangor Street station will likely continue to be used to serve the side of the city east of the Kennebec River.

Voters also approved a bond of $1 million to purchase a new multipurpose fire truck to replace the current ladder truck.

The new truck, which will have both a ladder and pump on it, will likely be put at the new north Augusta station with an engine truck, an ambulance and maybe some smaller, reserve vehicles, Audette said.

Audette said staffing hasn’t been finalized yet, but there will likely be four firefighter/EMTs there during the day and two at night, when call volumes are lower.

The station will be built on the 26-acre former Quimby lot, which the city bought in 1999 for $175,000 in hopes of using it to attract business to the area. City Manager William Bridgeo said the fire station probably would occupy only a couple of acres of the property, leaving the rest available for other uses.

Borrowing money to build the new station and buy the new truck is not expected to result in a need to increase property taxes, Bridgeo has said.

The bonds to pay for the new fire station and truck will be paid back with money collected from commercial development in the area that would be served by the new station. The funds would be repaid with money to be collected in multiple city tax increment financing accounts. Most of those sheltered funds came from new revenue from commercial development in the area, such as the Marketplace at Augusta, the Central Maine Commerce Center, and expansions at J.S. McCarthy and NRF Distributors. State rules allow the city to retain a portion of tax revenue generated from new development in designated districts and to spend that money on qualified projects, including fire stations.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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