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Two questions await the campaign to build a new fire training facility in York County, and one likely will answer the other. Is the money in hand enough to build it, and will that money be put in the right hands?
David Jennings, chief of Flint Hill Fire Department, told York County Council at its Oct. 15 meeting that cost estimates put a new training center above the $3.1 million the county could use to build it. But, Jennings said, he’s priced other projects in the state and believes the cost can come in line with available funds.
“I think we can build the whole thing for that much,” he said.
The estimates Jennings shared show $3.1 million - the amount of a 2008 bond to build up to six rural fire substations - would only pay for the first phase of a training center on McFarland Road near the county landfill in York.
That phase would include a shop, test pits and storage buildings. A second phase would add a burn building, classroom and drill tower.
Jennings said those initial figures are “inflated 40 to 50 percent over what they need to be,” and price shopping will keep the costs down. If so, the county rural fire board could “cover everything above” $3.1 million, he said.
“We’re looking at something that’s going to last 50, 60, 70 years for fire training in York County,” Jennings said. “It’s going to benefit all 18 departments in the county.”
The problem with the $3.1 million is it isn’t yet set aside for the training facility. Originally marked for the rural substations, there’s been discussion in recent years whether the county is better served improving its training space or providing closer coverage to residents in rural areas.
Council passed readings to bring up a public hearing and final vote on whether to allow the money for the training center. County manager Jim Baker said Thursday he expects the hearing and vote to be held Nov. 5.
Fire chiefs overwhelming support the training center rather than substations. Bethel Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Laws said the training center plan would “absolutely be better” and that services at the existing, 30-year-old facility, like vehicle maintenance, are critical to what departments do.
“They save the county a tremendous amount of money,” Laws said. “You really can’t put a price on good training.”
Councilman Eric Winstead seemed set on the reallocation decision at last week’s meeting because of fire chiefs’ comments.
“I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t move forward with reallocating funds,” he said. “The only question I have is when.”
Chairman Britt Blackwell also expressed approval, but is “troubled” by the increased costs of the training center.
“We all agree that’s where the priority should be, we’ve just got to live within the pocketbook,” he said.
Current plans are to put the training center south of York, where 30 “usable acres” and 11 more in a floodplain are available, Jennings said. The center would have space for two apparatus in four bays, three classrooms and offices for arson investigators and fire safety officers. A four-story training tower would be used for tower ladder work, search and rescue. A masonry residential burn building would provide live fire training for one- and two-level homes.
It would be accessible for all 16 rural fire departments in the county and more than 730 firefighters.
Laws is optimistic county leaders will see the value in the new center, but vows the same fire protection regardless.
“I sure hope they do, but even if they don’t, this office will still continue to provide great service,” he said.