Rural chiefs mull emergency facility

— Schoharie County Department of Emergency Services

The heat of an exercise: A hose team prepares to enter a second-floor burn room during a Firefighter 1 class at the Schoharie County fire training facility in April.  

EAST BERNE — A practice facility for nearby fire departments and a shooting range for police are being considered for the 25 acres on Route 443 purchased by the Berne Fire District this summer.

“We have to decide whether it’s feasible to do and figure out how to fund the project,” said Mary Alice Molgard, chairwoman of the Berne Fire District board of fire commissioners. She stressed that there is not yet an agreement among local fire departments and the sheriff’s office but expects one within six months.

The possibility of building a two-story metal structure that can be lit aflame repeatedly to practice firefighting and emergency response is being discussed with the Albany County Rural Fire Chiefs’ Association and the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, according to Molgard. Berne Fire District Chief Richard Guilz estimated the structure would cost around $450,000 and the total project, including a shooting range and storage facilities, would eventually total $1 million.

“We’d have to get out and talk to our congressional representatives and, hopefully, we can get some Homeland Security funding,” Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said of possible federal grants through the Strategic Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Strategic Initiative. A committee has been formed to plan for the funding and construction project, Guilz said, and a yet-to-be-named municipal entity would be formed to oversee the site. The committee would be considering other grants, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Rural Development branch of the United States Department of Agriculture.

For police, Apple said, the structure could be used for rappelling and counter-assault exercises for the county’s Emergency Response Teams, and the property could be used for Emergency Vehicle Operations Course training. He hopes a shooting range would be open to the public on weekends, with supervision.

“Sometimes we have to pay, sometimes we don’t, but we're basically at their beck and call,” Apple said of ranges his department now uses in Bethlehem and Colonie.

Fire departments that are part of the rural chiefs’ association and may practice at the site include East Berne, Berne, Knox, Westerlo, Rensselaerville, New Salem, Guilderland Center, Slingerlands, Voorheesville, Medusa, Gallupville, Coeymans Hollow, Onesquethaw, and Altamont, according to the association’s president, Richard Berger.

Last summer, the Berne Fire District purchased the 24.67-acre property on Route 443 for $135,000. Some contaminated soil has since been remediated, and inmates from the county jail have helped to clear the property for access roads and establishing a perimeter.

“The Berne Fire District is hoping to recover some of their investment by having the property logged,” said Guilz.

The fire-training facility would not be part of the construction of a new East Berne firehouse planned for the same location, said Molgard, and the East Berne fire company wouldn’t build the structure.

Schoharie County needed $500,000 to build a similar facility in Schoharie, where East Berne has trained before.

“There’s not much availability of existing training in and around Albany,” said Molgard of the need for the facility. She added that a training tower in Guilderland has limited availability for Hilltown departments for which East Berne is in a central location.

Schoharie County Fire Coordinator Matthew Brisley said the 17 departments within his county had a similar problem, of traveling far for training, before their facility was built, with half its cost shouldered by state capital funds and half by county savings. He said the tightening of regulations over the course of years have made it difficult for fire departments to practice live fires in homes that they acquire.

“If you’re going to use an acquired structure, there is a tremendous amount of preparation and pre-training work if you’re going to comply with our standard. I’ll agree with that, and that’s based on fire safety,” said Ken Willette, division manager of the public fire protection division of the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.

For fire departments, Guilz said, the metal structure will allow new recruits to experience high-temperatures and dense smoke in a controlled environment before fighting a real fire.

“A fire fighter class now is 91 class hours,” Guilz said of Firefighter I, the entry-level course required for anyone going into a burning building. “And that’s evolved from the original course, and that’s less than half that amount of hours.”

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