Norwalk dedicates state-of-art fire headquarters

City officials on Saturday dedicated the Fire Department's new headquarters on Connecticut Avenue, a $13 million building that enables firefighters to train inside the structure.

"We were fortunate to incorporate that into the building," said fire Capt. Edward McCabe during a tour of the three-story headquarters before the dedication ceremony began. "This allows us to train while we're in district, while we're still on duty."

Capt. Adam Markowitz, who designed the training areas, said, "Nobody has anything like this inside of a firehouse. They have it at a training ground."

"There's nothing like this built into a Fire Department," Markowitz said.

The training area features interior windows on the mezzanine level that are the same sizes as windows that firefighters would encounter in residential and commercial buildings. Firefighters can practice rescues from the windows that involve both ladders and ropes and rigging, and a manhole on the floor covers an area where firefighters can train for confined-space rescues.

McCabe and Markowitz indicated the mezzanine level's large empty room also can be filled with smoke for training purposes, and partitions can be set up to resemble bedrooms, kitchens and any other interior space where firefighters would search for occupants in a real fire. "We can use a smoke machine and smoke up this area. We can get this whole place full of smoke so you can't see your hand in front of your face, and then flip a switch, and it's all exhausted," McCabe said.

"We can do any firefighter training here short of putting fires out," McCabe said.

The new Fire Department, which will serve as the city's emergency operations center, also includes monitors on walls throughout the building that display call information so firefighters can verify addresses and the nature of emergencies before they head out.

Other features of the 31,000-square-foot building, which replaced the 23,000-square-foot fire station on the site since 1962, include bays for an engine company, ladder company and command car, training classrooms, exercise rooms, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters, a commercial kitchen, library, administrative offices, historical photographs on the walls and a bell from the late 1800s that has been in several of the city's fire stations over the years.

"This is a very special and historic day for the city of Norwalk and the Norwalk Fire Department," said Carol Andreoli, chairwoman of the city's Board of Fire Commissioners, at the start of the dedication ceremony. It was attended by about 150 people.

Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said planning for the new Fire Department headquarters began in 2004 and construction started in November 2011. He said the city funded $13 million and the department received a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to incorporate the emergency operations center and support spaces into the building. He said the city and Board of Education data centers also were moved to the building at a separate cost of $900,000.

"We completed it on time and on budget," McCarthy said.

City officials initially debated whether to renovate the former fire station or demolish it and build a new station. Andreoli said the former fire station was obsolete, had "major structural problems" and spending taxpayers' money to fix it up "would have been a futile attempt to restore a building that could not adequately house the department."

"While the old building had served us well, it was time to now recognize it was obsolete. The new building has a central command center equipped to deal with catastrophic emergencies and a state-of-the-art area for training," Andreoli said. "This new building will serve the department and the city of Norwalk for many decades to come ... They now have a station, a facility that meets their needs."

Mayor Richard A. Moccia, who in 2007 had directed the Fire Department to explore the idea of new construction, rather than renovations, said the new station is "the result of compromise, hard work and people willing to work across party lines for the safety of our citizens."

Moccia said the new fire headquarters was "a beautiful building" but was "only as good as the people that man the equipment, and I will tell you there is no greater group of personnel."

Michael Coffey, a member of the Board of Fire Commissioners, agreed. "Not only is it a great fire station but we also happen to have the greatest Fire Department in the country," he said.

The Fire Department plans in the next few days to bury a time capsule with memorabilia associated with the department in 2013 and to open it on Oct. 5, 2063.

The new structure, featuring a brick exterior and colonial design, is the first LEED Gold fire headquarters in the state. It was designed by Pacheco Ross Architects in Voorheesville, N.Y., and was built by Newfield Construction in Simsbury. "The construction workers really made this the best building they ever built, and it really shows in every detail," McCarthy said.

Monsignor William Scheyd, one of the Fire Department's chaplains, said the new headquarters is a "blessing not just for the Norwalk fire service but for the community in general."

Andrew Brophy of Norwalk Citizen