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City Council seeks grant for north side fire department substation

Land north of County Road 24 and east of County Road 41, near the intersection of the two roads, is being discussed as the site for a proposed Willmar Fire Department north side substation. Tribune photo by Kelly Boldan

WILLMAR -- Willmar will be applying for a share of federal economic stimulus funds to build a fire department substation on the city's north side.

The City Council Monday night approved a request from Fire Chief Marv Calvin to apply for funding under the 2009 Assistance to Firefighters Fire Station Construction Grant, a project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known at the federal stimulus program.

If received, the grant would pay to build the substation in a growing part of the city. Land costs are not included in the grant.

The site being considered, as City Administrator Michael Schmit pointed out on a map, is located just north of County Road 24 and just east of County Road 41.

Schmit said he's had some preliminary conversations with the property owner.

The substation would complement the downtown fire station.

Schmit said the city has discussed a north side substation for many years, but it never was built.

"Like many other things we deal with, it was a financial issue. There has not been the money available to pursue a project of that nature,'' he said.

"Now there is through a stimulus program that has set aside money specifically for this type of a project.''

Schmit suspected many other cities will also seek grants, but said it's an opportunity Willmar is trying to take advantage of.

The application was supported by the council's Public Works/Safety Committee. Committee vice chairman Ron Christianson said Calvin has advised that the substation would not require hiring new firefighters. He said the department has from six to eight firefighters in the area who would respond through that substation.

Schmit said the city recently hired a number of new paid, on-call firefighters with the intent of re-evaluating that number at year-end. In the future, he may seek council permission to add more firefighters, but not until the new hires are "acclimated and on-board.''

Mayor Les Heitke said the city needs to move ahead, and hopes the grant is approved.

In an interview, Calvin said City Council minutes indicate a substation has been discussed since 1980. He said the need for the substation remains unchanged.

If a catastrophic event in the rail yard, such as a chemical leak or derailment, closed downtown or closed the First Street Bridge, Willmar's response time to a north side call would increase. Mutual aid partners would be asked to assist.

To cross the tracks, firefighters would either have to go west to possibly the area of Fabric Warehouse or east to Fairview Cemetery. Calvin said those routes will delay response time. He said fire doubles in size every 30 seconds "and that could lead to a catastrophic event happening on the north side of town.''

Calvin doesn't know if a catastrophic event will happen. "But as emergency management people, we have to be prepared for that,'' he said. "That's our job.''

Calvin said Willmar wants a good response time where residential growth is occurring, and also where the expanding MinnWest Technology Campus, Ridgewater College and the new Copperleaf Senior Living Center are located.

Calvin estimates the cost of a new substation at $2 million. The grant program has $210 million available and hopes to award 100 applications. Willmar is at a disadvantage compared with cities with dilapidated fire stations because Willmar's fire station is well maintained, thanks to excellent staff.

However, Willmar is at an advantage "because we're shovel-ready, so within three years we can have our project in the ground. A score is given to projects that can kick off the fastest,'' he said.

The package also looks at use of environmentally-friendly uses such as watering lawns from water collected in rain barrels, energy-efficient appliances and permeable concrete and asphalt driving surfaces, he said.