A tri-town committee has been organized to come up with a design for a regional center to help fill a training gap for firefighters and other emergency services across central Maine.

Officials from Waterville, Winslow and Fairfield have been discussing a training building for more than a year, and a proposed building site has been identified in Fairfield. An ad-hoc committee including fire personnel and elected officials from the three towns intends to take the next year working out the project details.

A dedicated training center is “not just necessary, it’s critical,” said Dave LaFountain, the fire chief for Waterville and Winslow. “This is long overdue.”

The department used to set controlled burns on derelict buildings to give firefighters the live training they needed, LaFountain said. Tighter environmental regulations and the cost and time it takes to fix up a building so it is safe enough to train in mean that appropriate buildings are harder and harder to find.

With fewer options, the department has “done the best we can” to train personnel, LaFountain said.

Trainees climb ladders thrown against the side of the fire station and search through basements with blacked-out windows, but it’s difficult to do the realistic, real-world training, including live fire drills, that firefighters need. Departments can travel to training areas in Bangor, Augusta, Hollis, Wiscasset and Brunswick, but it can take more than an hour to get there and may not be available when the departments need them, LaFountain said.

“It is really a challenge to get our firefighters trained to the level they need to be,” LaFountain said. “On the job training is not really an option.”

Last year, a coalition of fire departments and emergency services from the three towns, plus Oakland, Albion, Clinton, Skowhegan, Madison and Norridgewock, submitted a report proposing a regional center to fill the training gap.

A central Maine center would give departments easy access to training for a whole gamut of required emergency services, like fire response, emergency medical service, technical rescue, emergency management and fire and building codes, the coalition said in its report.

Moreover, it could also help stimulate stronger regional collaboration, the authors noted.

“As a region, the municipalities and their respective emergency services departments have done very little to collaboratively develop a more efficient way to use resources, share the cost of necessary equipment and infrastructure, and determine the appropriate mix of resources and which services could be performed more efficiently by taking a regional approach,” the report stated.

“By taking a regional approach the area departments could have a much better facility than if any one municipality were to go out on their own,” the authors wrote.

“This approach could also foster relationships between the municipal departments, the private sector, and educational institutions and other companies that provide emergency services training,” they said.

The site proposed by the coalition would be in Fairfield on town-owned land near the municipal garage on Industrial Drive. The center would include a main building for live drills as well as classroom space, a storage building and concrete pads for vehicle extraction and propane fires. The center could cost as much as $463,677, according to a sample estimate provided to the coalition.

The Fairfield-Benton Fire Department already uses the area for training and it is in a commercial zone with nearby connection to utilities and a small pond, said Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny.

“In Fairfield, we have been talking about it for a long time,” Reny said.

A training center was included as part of the development program approved by the town as part of its tax increment financing district created last year to collect revenue from natural gas development in town.

The committee’s role is to come up with a design and cost estimates for the center, figure out a way the three towns can collectively pay for it and come up with a legal structure to operate it. The committee should complete its work within the next year, Reny said.

Although the committee will initially be represented by the three municipalities, Winslow Town Manager Michael Heavener expects the group to grow.

“I think that’s just a start. We will be reaching out to other communities and interested parties” that could share with funding and organization, Heavener said. That could include neighboring fire departments or private entities like Kennebec Valley Community College.

Collaboration will help spread out construction costs and avoid duplicating efforts in the three communities, Reny said.

“It really only makes sense if it is done regionally,” Reny said. “It’s the only way to approach it.”

After the up-front costs, the center is expected to pay for itself, Reny said.

Emergency service departments, police forces, ambulance services and private companies from neighboring towns and further abroad will be able to use the training site for a fee, Reny said.

“The concept is that it would generate enough revenue to pay for its own operating costs,” he said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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