Task Force: Metuchen needs a new firehouse

This year’s Metuchen Country Fair provided a clear example of the life of a volunteer firefighter.

Metuchen firefighters were out in force at the fair with a ladder truck raised high in the air displaying the American flag. As people toured the ladder truck, a call came in for a fire in the Jefferson Park Condominiums.

Firefighters immediately packed up and rushed to the scene, a residence on Newman Street. No one was hurt, but firefighters saved the family dog, Bella, who was cowering under a coffee table.

“We go from smiles and sunshine taking pictures with kids and handing out hats to breaking down doors, stretching in lines, opening up the roof and pulling people or pets out of the building,” said Metuchen Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Donnan at the borough council meeting Monday. “It’s a big thing to be a volunteer firefighter … we have to be prepared 24/7.”

Donnan came before Council as part of the Fire Station Task Force to explain the need for a new firehouse. Donnan methodically laid out in detail the deplorable state of the firehouse at 500 Middlesex Avenue, including deficiencies like a leaking and rotting roof, crumbling support pillars, plumbing and electrical issues and a door through which some sort of “critter” chewed.

Firefighters who sleep at the station lay on hose beds and pool tables. If they are sleeping near a loud snorer, they might sleep in the driver’s seat of a truck, Donnan said. During Hurricane Sandy, the firehouse lost power.

The leaks, structural weakness, even the lack of ventilation to help dry off equipment after use is putting around $4.6 million worth of equipment at risk, Donnan reported to Council.

Council took in the report of the Task Force and will talk in closed session at the next council meeting on 16 properties that could serve as the site of the new firehouse. Chief Donnan told Council some of those properties already have interest from other buyers.

Council has yet to decide whether to go with the “bandage” method of fixing up the existing firehouse, which was built in 1914, or building a new facility. The borough engineer estimated patching up the existing firehouse to get it into minimally better shape would cost around $1.8 million. That was a rough estimation made without a plan in place, the borough engineer pointed out at the meeting.

It’s not clear how much a new building, which would require the acquisition of property, would cost. It would likely require a bond issuance for funding.

Some minimal requirements for a new facility are a property of at least 1.5 acres, dual bay doors for two ways to get in and out of the facility, enough parking for 40 plus volunteers and a central location in the borough, said borough administrator Jennifer Maier in a separate interview after the meeting.

“The town is growing and changing, the fire station is falling apart, volunteer recruitment and retention gets harder every day, we’re running out of time and land to build on,” Donnan said. “The time to act is now.”

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