If you place a marble on the floor of the firefighter dorms at Central Emergency Services Station 1 in Soldotna, it will likely roll to one side of the room.
“The floor is not flat,” CES Chief Roy Browning said Tuesday.
The tilt reveals the wear and tear CES’ Station 1 has taken over the years — with its cinder block frame and 1950s-era pipes freezing and thawing annually, and building extensions made piecemeal as the agency’s needs have grown from community hall to multipurpose emergency service hub.
Borough voters will decide this year whether or not to fund the construction of an entirely new station to take its place. That’s following a vote by Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members earlier this month to put a $16.5 million bond question on the Oct. 4 municipal ballot. The borough estimates the bond would cost taxpayers an extra $36 per $100,000 of taxable property valuable.
Efforts to upgrade Station 1 in a major way have been in the works for decades.
The current site of Station 1, on Binkley Street across from the Soldotna Safeway, has historically been used for emergency response. A community hall was built on the property by residents in the mid-1950s, which volunteer firefighters used as a meeting place and for training. The hall was eventually torn down and a cinder block fire station for Soldotna was built in its place.
That building is still part of Station 1 — close inspection of the building’s southeast wall reveals the faint outlines of the former station’s three engine bays — but an addition in the early 1970s allowed the station to house taller fire engines that were capable of carrying more water. The station’s latest addition — the hose tower — was made in 1983.
The station got more crowded after 1992, when borough residents voted to combine the Kalifornsky Beach, Ridgeway and Sterling fire service areas with the borough’s emergency medical services. At the same time, the City of Soldotna relinquished its fire authority to the borough; Central Emergency Services was born.
Now, the station originally built to serve the fire needs of Soldotna serves 15,000 central peninsula residents and acts as the backup station for facilities in Sterling, Funny River and Kasilof.
“We’ve maxed out the space,” Browning said.
Many of the rooms in the original station are former fire administrative offices. Those offices are now located across the street in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, while the rooms in the station house station supplies, work stations and dorms.
Browning said personnel spend a lot of time walking across Wilson Lane, which runs between the station and the OEM building. That’s not a huge deal in the summer, Browning said, but can become problematic in the winter, when the road is dark and icy.
Now, the borough is in the process of purchasing a 1.45 acre lot located immediately adjacent to the OEM building, on which the new Station 1 would be built. The lot is .6 acres bigger than the land on which Station 1 currently sits and was formerly occupied by Foster’s Construction. That business now operates in a new location off Funny River Road.
Inside the current station, there’s a less-than-ideal operational flow.
The station’s former reception office has been converted into a women’s dorm inside of which a twin-sized mattress is propped against the wall if more space is needed elsewhere.
Across the hallway is the men’s dormitory, where bunk beds butt up against wooden armoires and “private” areas are sectioned off with curtains.
In an ideal world, Browning said, Station 1 would be able to sleep 10 firefighters in 10 individual rooms. Some of CES’ newer stations, such as those in Sterling and K-Beach, have three individual rooms each for staff to use.
There’s also the current dormitories’ unfortunate proximity to both the station’s backup generator, which is housed in a room that requires hearing protection for entry, and to the station’s decontamination machine. That machine treats equipment that’s been contaminated and would, in an ideal world, “not be in any area close to the living quarters,” Browning said.
The station’s physical fitness equipment spills out of a weight room — converted from a former training space — into the vehicle bay. Station 1 is the only CES station that has fitness equipment, which Browning said is important for firefighters and first responders from all stations to access. On any given day, Browning said, about six people can be found using the station’s weight room and cardio equipment.
On top of the weight room is a small conference room, where training is conducted, Browning said. Because of the lack of space, however, CES has, over the last two years, held training sessions at the vacant Soldotna Prep School Building located 1.1 miles away.
The current configuration of the station, Browning said, makes CES’ workflow “inefficient.”
“We’re very fragmented,” Browning said. “All of our equipment is stored in so many places, which makes our response inefficient.”
That includes the station’s ambulance supply room, which is accessed by a narrow flight of wooden stairs and is too small to allow CES to order supplies in bulk. It can become hazardous when EMS personnel are rushing with supplies up and down the stairs to and from an ambulance.
“Ideally, we would want this on the lower level right next to the ambulance bays so it would be quick — in and out,” Browning said.
In pitching the bond proposal to CES voters, Browning emphasized that Soldotna residents are not the only people who would benefit from an upgraded Station 1. Because the station serves as a central hub for all of the other CES stations, the benefits would be more widespread, Browning said.
“It’s important to let the other communities know that this is their fire station too,” Browning said. “I think right now we’re not efficient and it’s just costing the taxpayers a lot of money because of everything being so splintered.”
The push for a new station comes as demand for CES services — particularly out of the Soldotna station — continues to grow.
The number response calls fielded by CES increases by between three and five percent every year. At the time the station’s most recent addition was completed in 1983, the annual call volume was around 300. That’s compared to today’s call volume, which last year was about 2,800 for all of CES, more than 2,000 of which were out of the Soldotna station.
“We want to be able to have a reliable, resilient fire station that’s here during disasters and big wildland fires and have the capacity to handle our emergencies,” Browning said. “Right now, we’re not meeting that. It doesn’t have enough room right now to staff the appropriate number of people for today’s emergencies, let alone in the future.”